Nickel and Dimed play shows struggle to get by

Nickel and Dimed, by Joan Holden, directed by Bartlett Sher, from the book by Barbara Ehrenreich

You have probably heard of the book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America by noted author and activist Barbara Ehrenreich, but what you may not have heard is that the book is on its way to becoming a national theater sensation. Nickel and Dimed, the play, is a production of the Intiman Theater in Seattle (running July 26-Aug. 25), but will soon be opening in Los Angeles and beyond.

It is profoundly unnecessary to rave about the merits of the book. Ehrenreich’s book is a major journalistic accomplishment and any effort to share its ideas with a wider audience is just a good idea. And the play does that – it gives us a sense of what the book was about – its wit, wisdom and pain. And it should be noted that the playwright and director are both widely acclaimed and nationally known.

What is necessary to rave about is the production itself. This is one great play, on every level. The acting, direction, costumes, set design and music all conspire to brilliantly convey the feeling of Ehrenreich’s experiences as a low-wage worker in early 21st century America. It is not a happy tale, but one that must be told over and over. And the way this production tells this story is outstanding and remarkably clever.

The play follows Ehrenreich through three acts, which correspond to the months she spent in Florida, as a waitress and maid; in Maine, cleaning houses; and in Minnesota, working as a clerk for a large discount retailer known in the play as “Mall Mart.”

In each place, Ehrenreich met coworkers who were inspiring in their own ways, struggling to get by in America, and managers who were just tools. The set design, in particular, was a brilliant and minimal construction that allowed great flexibility between scenes and evocatively presented the emotions of the story.

The most memorable scene in the play was at a moment when Ehrenreich was cleaning houses and remarked to herself that she never hired anyone to clean her house because, “that is just not the kind of relationship I want with another human being.” At that point, the rest of the cast interrupts for a brief discussion with the audience about hiring someone to clean your house and working as a house cleaner.

It was a piece of theater that would have made the great German playwright and director, Bertolt Brecht, proud. Brecht was known for using elements that would disrupt the audience’s identification with the characters and introduce a critical distance for reflection. It was exceptional.

When this play comes to your town, do yourself a favor and see it. It will educate and uplift. The only irony is the $30 price tag for tickets (in Seattle) effectively excludes most of those whom Ehrenreich wrote about from seeing the play.

– Richard Curtis (pww@pww.org)