Published just four years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich's Nellie Bly-flavored NickelandDimedwas the sort of self-immersive, journalist-as-subject work no one seemed to be doing much of anymore. The very uniqueness of a writer crafting some useful, provocative, attitude-changing reporting may have been part of the reason why the book became a bestseller.
Taking her cue from the '90s debates that swirled around welfare reform, Ehrenreich abandoned her comfortable life writing for prestige brands like Time, Harper'sand the NewRepublicand hopped across several states to see if she, a single woman on the tail end of middle age, could support herself with minimum-to-low-wage waitress, maid and Wal-Mart jobs—something millions of working poor Americans do every day.
The book Ehrenreich wrote from this adventure is essentially the reality of the supposedly booming Clinton years. Sure, jobs were plentiful in the '90s, so much so that some people even had two or three of them—but as a matter of survival, not choice.
Joan Holden, who adapted the play from the book, has brilliantly captured the personal pains that come with living on tiny incomes: the life-sucking double-shifts; a motel room for an address; a loaf of bread for lunch; the psychic torture of scrubbing a kitchen sink but not being able to drink a glass of water from the tap or plunge into that cool swimming pool just outside the window; having to work through on-the-job injuries out of fear of being fired—and then having the state take your kids away if you are.
Holden stays faithful to Ehrenreich's main message: that the hardest, most-thankless, most soul-numbing, economy-driving jobs almost always pay the least, and that we—citizens of the richest country on the earth—owe these people so much more than we pay them. Holden's play also transfers a lot of Ehrenreich's funnier vignettes to the stage, which, like the book, saves the play from becoming a complete downer manifesto.
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The problem, though, with a dramatic staging of NickelandDimedis that it just—still—doesn't work very well, and I'd say that even if I hadn't read the book. In the book, Ehrenreich makes herself the central character and crafts an expert work of investigative journalism around her experiences, guiding the reader through the daily world of the working class. But in the play, there's simply too much "Barbara" (expertly portrayed though she is by CSUF faculty member Rita Renee, who carries the show amidst an equally fine ensemble cast) and not enough voices from the workers who live the minimum wage life every day.
Maybe I wanted something more on the lines of Studs Terkel's Working(which has also been adapted for the stage), but there were times when the dramatized NickelandDimedjust felt too filtered by Holden's script. It's kind of like taking Upton Sinclair's TheJungleto the stage and loading it up with a bunch of jokes about crappy airline food, particularly when Holden resorts to several clichd depictions of grabby, bargain-crazed Wal-Mart shoppers, which reeks of lazy sitcom writing.
Still, that labor issues and the lives of the working class—two of the mainstream media's most criminally under-covered topics—are brought to the public in any non-condescending form is an action that's to be commended, no matter how flawed it may be.
NICKEL AND DIMED AT THE ARENA THEATRE AT THE CAL STATE FULLERTON PERFORMING ARTS CENTER, 800 N. STATE COLLEGE BLVD., FULLERTON, (714) 278-3371. THURS., MARCH 24, 8 P.M.; FRI., 8 P.M.; SUN., 6:30 P.M. THROUGH APRIL 10. $7-$9; AUTHOR BARBARA EHRENREICH SIGNS COPIES OF AND SPEAKS ABOUT NICKEL AND DIMED AT THE CSUF TITAN STUDENT UNION. APRIL 12, 7:30 P.M.