Gwen Harris, Dee Covington and Christopher Leo in 
    Nickel & Dimed.
Gwen Harris, Dee Covington and Christopher Leo in Nickel & Dimed.

Shortchanging America

Barbara Ehrenreich published Nickel & Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America in 2001 partly as a response to President Clinton's 1996 reorganization of welfare, which kicked recipients off the rolls if they had not gone to work after two years. Before doing research for the book, Ehrenreich already knew that it was not possible to survive on the kind of minimum-wage jobs available to welfare recipients. So how did they cope once benefits ceased, she wondered. Did poor people have ways of getting by that are unknown to the middle class? Over lunch with Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper's, she suggested that someone really should do a personal investigation. Lapham promptly turned her life upside down with a single word: "You."

Ehrenreich's book is a model of immersion journalism. Accessible and analytic, compassionate and hardheaded, it takes the reader on a journey through the world of waitressing, cleaning houses for the rich and working at Wal-Mart. It's a world where housing is always tenuous, the body is constantly under strain, lunch may be a bag of chips or some stale hot dog buns, and God forbid anyone should get sick, because there's no medical care available. This world intersects with ours daily, but most of us don't see it. Very few wealthy or middle-class people concern themselves with the lives of those who serve them food or come around to clean.

When I heard that the Curious Theatre Company was mounting Nickel & Dimed based on Ehrenreich's book, I wondered how the group could do it. Though it's full of interesting characters and lacerating vignettes, the text seemed to lack a dramatic throughline. But playwright Joan Holden, who worked for decades with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, has done a terrific job.

The play begins as frantic waitresses rush from table to table, taking orders, helping each other out and cursing or sweet-talking the cook. One of the waitresses stops midstride and speaks directly to us. She identifies herself as "Barbara" and proceeds to describe her salmon-and-field-greens lunch with Lapham and the parameters of her project. What follows is flowing and episodic. We learn more about Barbara's experiences and meet her fellow workers. The housecleaning segment is shocking. Barbara and the other maids are employed by a corporate cleaning outfit that gives them strict instructions on how to do the job and how long to take doing it. The emphasis is on appearance, and the actual cleaning is pretty cursory -- though nonetheless exhausting. It leaves a house looking and smelling clean, but the place is utterly unhygienic. Although cleaning is hot work, the women are not allowed to pause for a drink of water.

The central revelation of both the book and the play is not that it's impossible to live on $8 an hour; anyone who stops to think about the topic for more than two minutes knows this. Rather, it concerns the way the poor cope -- or try to cope. They look for cheap food; they leave their children at home unattended because they can't afford daycare, and they make frequent, anxious calls to check up; they spend $40 a night they can't afford on hotel rooms because they can't accumulate the money for a down payment on a cheesy one-room place. Poor women stay with men they dislike or are afraid of because they can't afford to leave. They share with each other. They live in shelters or out of cars, even while working. They take on second and third jobs. They do without.

And the rest of us are complicit, Ehrenreich says. We demand cheap goods and cheap fast food. We want our houses cleaned, but we're unwilling to pay much for the service. And here Barbara stops the on-stage action for a little dissertation on the varieties of shit stains she's found while cleaning toilets.

Another revelation is the effect of poverty on the psyche. While waitressing at the restaurant, Barbara befriends George, a Czech immigrant, and tries to teach him a little English. Subsequently, George gets into trouble with the management, for reasons he doesn't understand. Barbara's normal, middle-class self would have intervened, argued with the boss, threatened legal action. But after weeks as a waitress, she finds herself too tired, demoralized and overwhelmed to help.

Nickel & Dimed is anything but a grimly polemical evening, however. It's generous and full of laughter and shared humanity. It has a tone I remember from San Francisco Mime Troupe performances (I'm thinking of one in which an actor upended a bucket and drenched the front row while proclaiming, "Water for the flower children"). Nickel & Dimed has the same mocking, mischievous, self-referential quality -- though rest assured, you'll leave the theater dry.

At one point, the actors stop the action to tackle one of Ehrenreich's most contentious positions: She maintains that it's unethical for women to hire cleaners and nannies and deplores the fact that many contemporary feminists have found their own freedom at the expense of the working poor. (Ehrenreich's most recent book, written with sociologist Arlie Hochschild, is Global Women: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy.) As Barbara declaims on the topic, some of the other actors disagree. They begin arguing among themselves and eventually involve the audience. It's a stimulating exchange.

Six actors take on numerous different roles under Chip Walton's direction. Dee Covington is humorous and energetic as Barbara, but in some ways, I found her performance the least satisfying of the evening. It felt too presentational; I had a hard time forgetting she was acting. Billie McBride creates a succession of sharply defined characters. She's particularly winning as the fast-moving, awesomely competent waitress, Gail, and as Marge, the cleaning lady who loves cooking and regales her hungry co-workers with descriptions of her creative recipes. Christopher Leo's characters are convincing, too, from the befuddled George (I was so afraid George would be a caricature out of Saturday Night Live) to the aristocratic Lewis Lapham. Laura Chavez brings a charming energy to all her people. Gwen Harris is wonderful as the defeated hotel maid, Carlie, a slumped, hopeless woman who's clearly not going to last much longer on the job (and heaven knows what'll happen to her when she loses it), and as sweet, religious Melissa. Kendra Crain is a fine actress. She's particularly moving as Holly, a young pregnant woman struggling to stay chirpy, keep the other women in line and please her boss at the cleaning outfit. Neil Haverstick provides evocative accompaniment on the guitar.

With Nickel & Dimed, Curious shines a light on a stratum of society many people prefer not to see. What's revealed is suffering, certainly, but also courage, ingenuity and human caring.


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