Nickel and Dimed
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
October 6, 2006
Nickel and Dimed began its life in 2001 as a nonfiction book about the challenges faced by the working poor, by journalist Barbara Ehrenreich (which, I should confess, I read eagerly when it came out). In 2002, playwright Joan Holden was commissioned by Seattle's Intiman Theatre to develop the book into a theatre piece. Although it's been widely produced regionally and even internationally, the play is only now having its New York premiere, with the young company 3Graces Theater Co.
Ehrenreich, a New York City-based journalist with a regular gig at Harper's Magazine, went "undercover" to research the book, spending a year traveling the country and trying to actually make ends meet on minimum-wage jobs, often more than one at a time. She waited tables at a chain restaurant in Florida; she cleaned houses and worked as a nursing-home dietary aide in Portland, Maine; she folded shirts and restocked shelves at a WalMart in Minneapolis. Presuming she would find that the working poor had survival strategies unknown to the middle class, she instead found women raising children so close to the edge that one doctor's bill would throw them over, people whose array of bad choices is only curtailed further by their low incomes, who still constantly shocked her with small acts of generosity and selflessness.
Although the book is eye-opening and often heart-breaking, there were considerable challenges involved in adapting it for the stage—most notably the fact that Ehrenreich, like any good journalist, tries to keep her own emotional journey and reactions out of the story as much as possible. There's no central character or story arc to the book, problems that Holden has no choice but to solve by focusing on Barbara herself.
Ehrenreich, the objective journalist whose passion is for telling the stories of others, thus becomes the character Barbara, the working-class girl who's moved far from her roots and discovers that she can't go home again, whose solidly middle-class boyfriend cannot understand why she pursues this quest, who ultimately gives up on her expedition and returns to her comfortable life in New York. The change of focus, to me, softens the force of the story's revelations about poverty, about the lack of choices for the working class.
I think the theatre-going audience is supposed to identify with Barbara, a stranger in a strange land—but there are times when her frustration with a situation comes out as hostility or condescension toward the other women she works with. I grew tired of the constant emphasis on the gap between the "real" Barbara and her co-workers, rather than on the stories of the co-workers themselves. Because Barbara has constant asides, interior monologues, private thoughts to which the audience is privy, she becomes a character with a lot more complexity and emotional depth than her co-workers. (The epilogue, which follows up on the lives of the co-workers after Barbara has moved on, does to a certain extent make up for this, but comes too late.) The play becomes inwardly focused on Barbara's journey of self-discovery, and I think this is to the detriment of the important story told in the material and in Ehrenreich's book.
3Graces's production has its strengths and weaknesses. The production design overall seems to be battling with the small stage space of the Bank Street Theatre. There's an appealing tangibility to Victoria Roxo's set, crammed with a refrigerator, a toilet, a bed and other accoutrements of the places Barbara finds herself working and living. But the heaviness and size of the major set pieces also cramp traffic patterns, and leaves director Dave Dalton without a lot of flexibility in the show's movement, and without a lot of options in staging the transitions from scene to scene. The live three-piece band adds an appealing element of musical whimsy, but also constrains the staging further.
The actors are clearly passionate and invested. One of 3Graces's trademarks is an immersion process during the rehearsal period; for this play, the actors all lived for a week on a budget approximating minimum wage. The ensemble in general does a good job at portraying the relentless optimism, the refusal to crumble under what seem to the audience overwhelming obstacles. However, at times, the use of dialect to clearly delineate the different roles threatens to shade into character. Margot Avery, as Barbara, is strongest in the sections calling for wry humor, but in other sections seems tentative, even lost.
The theme of 3Graces's second season is "2nd Class Citizens"—and Nickel and Dimed certainly exemplifies that theme, showcasing the lives of minimum-wage workers (mostly, but not entirely, women): waitresses, house-cleaners, motel maids, health-care aides, and WalMart—excuse me, "Mall-Mart"—clerks across America. The subject material is important and worthy—but I'm not sure that the play serves the needs of its story well.