“Nickel and Dimed” – rich drama of working poor

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The crisis of capitalism has led to a glorious rebirth of left-leaning theatre: Nickel and Dimed is one of this dissident wave's finest, most compelling dramas.

There's a hallowed tradition of truth tellers going undercover in order to expose great evils to the world. As skilled mass communicators they can give a platform to the voiceless, or at least express a point of view coming from an authentic first-hand perspective on the wrongs they are revealing.

Examples include 1933's Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell's account of life in the lower depths of Britain during the Great Depression. Also the 1961 civil rights classic Black Like Me, where a Caucasian journalist, John Howard Griffin, darkened his skin in order to experience the segregated South from a Black perspective. And in the 2004 documentary Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock subjected himself to a diet of McDonald's for a month, disclosing the dangers of fast food consumption.

Barbara Ehrenreich's 2001 Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America fits into this muckraking tradition. It's a 21st-century counterpart to Frederick Engels' 1845 The Condition of the Working Class in England. Ehrenreich clandestinely worked for three months in a number of blue collar low-wage jobs to see if one could survive doing so. Former San Francisco Mime Troupe playwright Joan Holden's stage adaptation superbly dramatizes the then-50-something writer's undercover misadventures.

Zachary Barton is stellar as the protagonist who is alternately called "Barbara"-when she's in authorial mode-and "Barb" when she is waitressing at the "Kenny's" eatery chain, folding and sorting clothes at "Mallmart," and cleaning homes for "Magic Maids." Barton expertly expresses Barbara/Barb's smoldering outrage, who (as the writer) proudly proclaims early in the play: "I'm a radical." Later on a character ponders about Barb: "I wonder if she's a communist?"

(Ehrenreich is an honorary chair of Democratic Socialists of America, quoted as saying: "DSA carries on a fine old American tradition-the tradition carried on by Eugene Debs, Mother Jones, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and thousands more. I am proud to be a member.")

The ensemble is likewise first-class as (mostly) working-class stiffs Barb encounters when she goes through the plebian looking glass. Veronica Alicino, Kathleen Ingle, Jackie Joniec, Carmen Lezeth Suarez, Johnnie Torres, and Matthew Wrather all play multiple roles, with convincing pathos and humor. Cannily cast, they appear to be real people in various sizes, ethnicities, shapes, and ages.

A standout moment in the play is when Wrather as a Mallmart manager rationalizes the chain's hyper-exploitation business model, which allegedly includes forcing laborers to work extra hours for no additional payment. ("Mallton" family members are among the wealthiest individuals in America.)

Richard Kilroy adeptly directs, and also has the set design credit. Nickel and Dimed has many scenic transitions as we move from one of Barb's places of employment to another, from Florida to the Northeast, so the rapid set changes must keep pace with her odyssey.

The oppressive, humiliating conditions of underpaid, non-unionized, hyper-exploited workers who generally don't receive benefits come first and foremost here. But the rift between intellectuals and manual laborers is also explored: The highly educated Barbara has options her blue-collar comrades don't. Spunky Barb is puzzled by what seems to be their subservience, yet these people who have so little also have much to lose if they get fired. Without much of a safety net, if any, their wage slavery is all that stands between them and utter destitution.

Daughter of a copper miner, the Montana-born Ehrenreich remembers her own humble origins. (She was also married to a Teamster organizer for 10 years.) Barbara's crusade causes a fissure to grow between her and her white-collar boyfriend, but the script doesn't resolve this plot-wise, or to fully show how Barbara's time among the wretched of the Earth has changed her.

But this is a mere quibble. Nickel and Dimed powerfully, poignantly demonstrates why the millions of unrepresented workers need to be unionized, and how this is arguably the cause of our time. All those who argue against raising the minimum wage should be forced to live on it themselves! (Incidentally, this work has also recently played in Chicago.)

Bright Eyes Productions' Nickel and Dimed is performed on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through Aug. 25 at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA. For tickets: Call (323)960-5770 or see www.pays411.com/nickelanddimed.

Photo: Zachary Barton as Barbara, Carmen Lezeth Suarez as Maddy. Photo by Olivier Riquelme.

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