Nickel and Dimed

Ehrenreich’s book gets shortchanged in this OpenStage production.

Halfway through her best-selling Nickel and Dimed, a book examining the minimum-wage way of life, author Barbara Ehrenreich stops for a disquisition on cleaning other people's toilets. "The first time I encountered a shit-stained toilet as a maid, I was shocked by the sense of unwanted intimacy," she writes. "A few hours ago, some well-fed butt was straining away on this toilet seat, and now here I am wiping up after it."

As thousands of high-schoolers who have been assigned to read Nickel and Dimed in the past few years know, Ehrenreich set out to re-create the lives of the poor by attempting to survive on minimum-wage jobs herself — hotel maid, cleaning woman, waitress, nursing-home aide and Wal-Mart associate —for three months in three different cities. Joan Holden of the San Francisco Mime Troupe turned the book into a play, and although she didn't work directly with Ehrenreich, the two women share a profound concern with social issues and a tough-minded sense of humor — Ehrenreich's perhaps more caustic, while Holden's is broader and more whimsical. The play Nickel and Dimed was first mounted by Denver's Curious Theatre Company in 2003. That production was fast, incisive and funny, and included a brain-bending moment when the cast stopped the action to ask those in the audience if they employed maids and, if so, what they paid them. (Ehrenreich has described the maid-employer relationship as morally dubious in and of itself.)

For this production, OpenStage Theatre has changed the focus of the script somewhat but poses the same essential questions: How do people survive on minimum wage, particularly mothers with young children? Are there certain economies and contrivances poor people utilize that the rest of us don't know about? Is so, what are they? If not, how do people manage? We learn that those on the lowest end of the pay scale live in cheap, dirty motel rooms in dangerous areas; with friends or family; with partners who may be abusive but whom they can't afford to leave; in their cars. Their diet frequently consists of whatever foods yield the most calories for the buck — hot dog buns, say, or corn chips. They suffer chronic ailments for which they can't get medical care, and many are in constant pain. Unable to afford daycare, the women patch together sitters for their infants — older siblings, somewhat reliable neighbors. Perhaps the most insidious result of poverty is that so many of these people lose all sense of potency, any belief in themselves as having consequence in the world.

Given the differences between the OpenStage and Curious productions, it's clear that Holden's script is pretty open-ended, a framework within which theater companies can improvise a bit and add action or pieces of dialogue. The OpenStage version works best when it expresses — usually in the person of Nicole Gawronski, who plays Barbara — the kind of irony and humor that animates Ehrenreich's description of toilet cleaning. Much of the rest of the production is slow and unconvincing, though, and the observations about poverty seem didactic. There's no audience-actor discussion about maids here; instead, one of the actors, Matt Campbell, performs his own Bob Dylan-style songs. Although he sings and plays the guitar well, these distractions stop the momentum rather than build feeling.

The cast is endearing, but most of the actors seem too inexperienced to give their characters authenticity and heft. Ehrenreich's book tells the sad story of a nineteen-year-old dishwasher named George, a recent immigrant from the Czech Republic, who understands almost no English and is completely uncomprehending when he's accused of stealing — an accusation that gets him fired and, very possibly, deported. Ehrenreich writes that she doubts he stole anything, and if he did, it was probably no more than a package of crackers to assuage his hunger. At OpenStage, George is acted by an adult male, given a funny walk and played more for comedy than pathos. Gawronski gives the most compelling performance, and she fully communicates Barbara's growing comprehension of this netherworld she's entered. Too demoralized to help George, Barbara later finds the courage to stick up for Holly, a pregnant woman injured on a cleaning job, telling their boss that Holly must be given time off. Unfortunately, the younger woman sees this not as a kindness, but as an unforgivable intrusion.

Nickel and Dimed is the centerpiece of a month-long community dialogue about poverty in Fort Collins — a discussion that's long overdue. In presenting Ehrenreich's ideas with sincerity and some charm, director R. Todd Hoven and his cast are performing an important service. They're just not presenting a great production.

 
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