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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Theatreworks Production of
Nickel and Dimed is an
Excellent Social Diatribe

Also see Richard's review of Me and My Girl

TheatreWorks and Brava! Women in the Arts are currently presenting the Northern California premier of Nickel and Dimed, Joan Holden’s theatrical adaptation of Barbara Ehrenreich’s non-fiction best seller "Nickel and Dimed: (On) Not Getting by in America." The production will play at the Mountain View Performing Arts Center through September 28 and then move to the Brava Theatre Center in San Francisco on October 8th and play through November 9th.

Nickel and Dimed premiered at the Intiman Theatre in Seattle in August of 2002. Additional work was done before it played at the Mark Taper in September last year. There was also a production of the drama at the Guthrie Lab in Minneapolis this year.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s exposé is very difficult to put onto stage as a social diatribe; however, it succeeds as very good theater with witty and energetic acting. Nickel and Dimed tells the story of the working poor who clean the motel rooms along the nation’s highways, the waitresses working at chains like Denny's or those “service helpers” who work at Wal-Mart. All of these persons must pay for rent, car, food, child care and clothing expenses on $6.50 per hour. They also have to endure the windbag despots who are in managerial positions.

The play follows Ehrenreich’s own experience of working undercover for three months for an article in Harper's about the plight of these women who work for minimum wage. She trades her designer suits for the uniforms of a waitress, a motel maid, a housecleaner and a supermart clerk throughout the two act swiftly moving play. Barbara takes three jobs, each for a month, in a different part of the country. She becomes a minimum wage waitress in Florida at a chain that sounds suspiciously like Denny's where she waits on obnoxious tourists. Needless to say, these customers are not big tippers and she has to share the proceeds with the cook and the busboy. The writer also has to obtain a second job as a motel maid to pay the rent on a cheap trailer where, when she goes to the toilet, “her feet are in the shower stall.”

Her second month takes her to Maine to work as a Merry Maid making $7 an hour while the smarmy male employer collects $25 an hour for her work. This job is even more demeaning since the women cannot even drink water when they work in the heat. The final month finds Barbara working at Mall Mart in Minnesota which could be Wal-Mart or K-Mart. Her spirits are flagging by this time due to the injustices of the system.

There are some brilliant scenes, especially in Kenny’s restaurant where the playwright catches the environment of the kitchen. You see the fury and confusion of the ordering process for the meals. The Mall Mart scenes are so true to life with a smiling authoritarian manager working the poor girl’s tuchis off. He even asks the employees to clock out and then come back and finish the work for free. The housekeeper scenes are the weakest of the play, and the actresses play characters with little depth. Each has her own cross to bear, but it tends to be a little soap opera-ish in scope.

Nickel and Dimed's conclusion is that there is no way a person in America earning $7 or $8 an hour can make it. She must have two jobs, live in a car, share an apartment or have a husband who works. She cannot even get health care or child care. It is a no win situation. There is even a scene in which the actresses come out of their roles to confront the audience, such as asking the patrons if they have cleaning ladies and what they pay per hour.

Nickel and Dimed boasts first rate acting in the ensemble cast. Sharon Lockwood, who created the role of Barbara in Seattle and played the same part at the Mark Taper in Los Angeles, is very personable in the role of an observer rather than an active subject. She wins the audience over with her droll observations and wry delivery.

There are multiple parts played by the other five actors, Darren Bridgett, Chistina Anselmo, Julia Brothers, Elizabeth Carter and Susy McInerny. All are very convincing in their various roles. Jazz guitarist Liberty Ellman accompanies the quick changing scenes with his own arrangements. Elizabeth Carter is excellent as the worn out motel maid who tells Barbara to slow down because “you get paid by the hour and not by the room.” She is also very good as the born again Christian who is aspiring to better things than a “service representative” at Mall Mart. Cristina Anelmo is first-rate as a Spanish male cook at Kenny's and a nervous and very worried housemaid who has young children at home, and she even plays a cockatoo bird. Julia Brothers give a super performance as a veteran waitress who gives the jargon new meaning. Susy McInerny gives a heartfelt performance as the naïve pregnant leader of the house cleaners who is afraid to tell her husband of the coming birth.

Darren Bridgett is the lone male in this cast, but his breadth of characters is incredible. His portrayal of the Czech busboy with only a smattering of English is outstanding. His always smiling supervisor role at Mall Mart is choice. He is a perfect middle management boss trying to impress the company. I was particularly impressed with his portrayal of an attendant in a nursing home where he has delusions of grandeur with his fellow employees.

Kate Boyd’s set is a series of sliding doors with rolled in furniture accompanied by good, effective lighting by Robert Ted Anderson. The costumes by Keiko Shimosato reflect the perfect working girl uniforms. Direction by Dan Chumley is sharp, and each scene moves very smoothly. He makes a diatribe into interesting theater.

Nickel and Dimed plays at the Mountain View Performing Arts Center, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View through September 28th. For tickets call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org The play moves to the Brava Theatre Center, 2789 24th Street, San Francisco with previews on October 8th and an opening on October 11. It will run through November 9th. For tickets call 415-647-2822 or visit www.brava.org.

TheatreWorks' next production will be Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music which opens on October 8th at the Mountain View Center for the Arts.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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