It’s been a long, hot summer across most of the country, but before you take the next sip of that Big Gulp, pause and think. To whom or what do you owe your summer pleasures — the supersized sodas from your neighborhood convenience store; the cheap kiddie pools from the nearest discount chain; the clean, modest, roadside motel room en route to your vacation destination? These perks of middle-class American life are brought to you by the working poor, who toil for minimum wage in restaurants, motels and retailers stretching from coast to coast.
Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich makes this case convincingly in her bestselling book “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.” And playwright Joan Holden, director Bartlett Sher and artistic adviser Anna Deavere Smith convey Ehrenreich’s message forcefully in their adaptation of the book, premiering at Seattle’s Intiman Theater.
However, it takes more than a compelling message to make great theater, and while the stage version of “Nickel and Dimed” succeeds on a number of levels, it doesn’t achieve true dramatic momentum — at least it doesn’t yet. The production goes back into rehearsals midway through its Seattle premiere, and a revised version will open at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum in September.
But let’s get back to that 32-ounce soda for a minute.
Ehrenreich plunged herself into the world of fast food and flophouses in 1998, on the suggestion of her editor at Harper’s magazine. Her assignment was simple: Go “undercover” as an unskilled laborer, find and keep a minimum-wage job and try to make ends meet. She worked in three states (Florida, Maine and Minnesota) in a variety of positions, including waitress, cleaning woman and retail sales clerk.
Her conclusion: There is no way for a person to make it in America earning $7 or $8 an hour, unless she has a working spouse earning better wages, or she works two jobs, or lives in her car or shares an apartment, three or four to a room. Forget health care and child care. Minimum wage won’t even cover the basic necessities of food, shelter and clothing.
No wonder you can buy an outsized cola at the corner store for under a buck. It costs the corporation that owns the store virtually nothing to sell it to you.
Playwright Holden, formerly of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, has the ideal writing and political credentials to adapt Ehrenreich’s experiences for the stage. Director Sher orchestrates the proceedings with his signature energy and wit. The project received an added boost from Smith (“Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities” and “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992”), a master at turning reportage into drama.
With this much experience and brainpower behind it, the production has much to recommend it. John Arnone’s rotating set captures Barbara’s frenetic energy as she races from scrubbing motel-room floors by day to taking restaurant orders by night. And the cast is uniformly strong — especially Jason Cottle in numerous supporting roles (including a pathologically lying health-care aide) and Sharon Lockwood, who is equally believable as Barbara the journalist and Barb the entry-level working stiff.
Believability doesn’t equal depth, though, and unfortunately Barbara’s character is not fully formed enough to carry the play from beginning to end. All we know about her is that she comes from a blue-collar background (her father was a miner, her ex-husband a Teamster) and that she left that life behind for a Ph.D. and a career as a writer.
She has leftist leanings and a compassionate heart, but other than that, we don’t know what motivates her. What relationships have shaped her? What spurred her to become a writer? How does she spend her time when she’s not on assignment?
One theme from Ehrenreich’s book that Holden and Sher have chosen to emphasize is the way poverty strips people of their identities. The character Barbara likens her minimum-wage sojourn to having amnesia, or being lost in the woods. But since we don’t really know her identity in the first place, we don’t know what it means for her to lose it.
This may be a problem inherent in the source material, since Ehrenreich’s book is essentially a piece of journalistic nonfiction, and the author posits herself as an observer (or a “scientist” conducting an “experiment”) rather than an active subject. But because many other characters in the book have been necessarily condensed or conflated, we’re left with no one with whom we can truly connect.
Without a strong protagonist at its center, the play risks becoming a polemic. It’s at its worst when several characters break through the fourth wall to ask audience members to talk about their own experiences hiring — or working as — low-paid domestic help.
Still, the subject matter of the book is undeniably provocative. One can’t read it — or see this stage version — without questioning an economy in which poor people subsidize the lifestyle of the middle and upper classes. (That Big Gulp may never taste so sweet again.) But now it’s up to the play’s rewrite team to render people and events that are as powerful as this idea.