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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

The Guthrie Lab's Nickel and Dimed
stirs consciousness

Nickel and Dimed
Robynn Rodriguez (Barbara) and Peggy O’Connell (Gail)
Nickel and Dimed packs a social wake-up call, all right, but don't let that put you off. The Guthrie Lab's Dimed is artfully staged, wonderfully acted and, if at times its sense of outrage borders on the didactic, it's also funny and poignant; and I can guarantee that once you've seen it, you will view the working poor with new respect.

Joan Holden based the play on Barbara Ehrenreich's book, "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America," in which journalist Ehrenreich shows how our middle-class lives are subsidized by the working poor. Ehrenreich went undercover for one month in three different cities to earn her board and food as a low-end worker. She experienced hands-on what millions of minimum and sub-minimum wage workers already know: it is simply not possible to feed and house yourself on $5.15 an hour, or even on $7.25 an hour.

Ehrenreich knew that her immersion in the world of bottom-end jobs was temporary and that she had a credit card between herself and homelessness. Even with a journalistic commitment to live the risks that minimum-wage work implies, she twice opted out; once after getting fired from a thinly disguised Denny's restaurant in Florida and, the second time, after her final stint as one of the routinely exploited clothes-sorters at Mal-Mart (guess which chain!) in Minneapolis. Low pay, being ordered to clock-out and to return to work, unpaid, at Mal-Mart and lack of housing within her paltry budget make Barb, Ehrenreich's character in the play, so desperate that she gives up and admits she's a journalist to a fellow worker and quits.

Barb's growing sense of desperation as she works as a waitress for $2.15 an hour plus tips, and then as a hotel room cleaner, a house cleaner and finally as a Mal-Mart "sales associate" provides the dramatic action in Dimed. In excellent casting, spunky Robyn Rodriguez plays Barb. When she accepts the assignment, Barbara is a confident outsider looking in at the daily life of survival on sub-livable wages. As the play progresses through her different jobs with different co-workers, Barb loses her feistiness and becomes ground down by the frantic toil and the daily corrosion of humiliation and the hardships of survival. So reduced does she become that she notes, "Smoking is an act of self-nurturance, carried out in defiance."

Director Bill Rauch pulls performances from Rodriguez and his first-rate ensemble cast that made me identify with the women and feel, there but for being born middle-class, go I.

Barb steps out of the action to address the audience directly, a device often used when books become stage plays. Direct narration serves Dimed well; it's like a spine upon which its many scenes hang. But Barb's rant right before intermission that she directs at the upper-class woman whose house she team cleans: "that's not rust, lady, staining your marble, that's the blood of the working class ..." felt heavy-handed. Her outrage is rightly heartfelt but badly placed, receiving extra emphasis, as it does, before intermission. I felt preached at as I waited for the rest of the play.

There's a fine balance between moralizing and drama in a play of social criticism, and apart from the unfortunate placement of this speech in the script, Dimed successfully leavens its message with humor and engaging characters.

Apart from Rodriguez as Barb, the actors play multiple roles and all are strong. Particularly engaging is Peggy O'Connell's earthy waitress, Gail. Sarah Agnew touched me as Holly, the anxious-to-please-at-any-cost, pregnant leader of the house cleaning team. Versatile Isabell Monk O'Connor plays surly Carlie and sweet, put-upon Melissa with equal conviction; Natasha Arroyo pulls heart chords as troubled Maddy, a single mother who locks her two small children in a room for the day, with a potty, because she can't afford day care.

In the least interesting of Christopher Liam Moore's several well acted roles, he plays Barbara's boyfriend, who stays disengaged from her project. The role is significant, as it works to remind the audience of its own complacency about low-paid worker subjection.

A self-conscious charm pervades Dimed. Agnew steps out of her role as Holly, who cleans houses for $6.65 an hour, and asks the audience how many people employ cleaning ladies. Up go the privileged hands. Then there's a free for all on how much people pay their cleaners and how much actors earn, and Amy Van Patten, who plays on-stage guitar, chips in on low musician pay. In another amusing touch, cast members provide sound effects from the wings, as they might in a money-strapped production.

Christopher Acebo's clever sliding sets accommodate the multiple scene changes and, with Marcus Dilliard's lighting, his scenes capture the chilly, hard-edged feel of the low-wage nether world. Costume designer Lynn Jeffries' life-sized silhouettes of Kennys' customers and a contented upper-class cat wittily contribute to the sense of scraping-by-on-the-cheap.

Dimed is a must-see for anyone who enjoys good theater and who and cares about people. It's even more important viewing for ardent capitalists who believe in letting the market value employment, regardless of livability. The working poor in Dimed need a union.

Nickel and Dimed August 9 - August 31. Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. Sundays, 7:00 p.m. Matinees on selected Saturdays and Sundays at 1:00 p.m. $22 - $30.The Guthrie Lab, 700, First Street North, Minneapolis. 612-377-2224. Toll-free 877-44Stage. www.guthrietheater.org.


On a sad note, Eye of the Storm Theater will close after its October world premiere of Carson Kreitzer's Slither. EYOTS is a small theater that has operated with all the artistry and class of a top-end mid-sized theater. It will leave a large hole in the Twin Cities theater scene.


Photo: © Michal Daniel, 2003



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Elizabeth Weir



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