Nickel & Dimed

With the economy still foundering, unemployment high, natural gas shortages looming, and the cost of basic necessities still rising, large numbers of Americans are finding it increasingly difficult to survive. Yet for those still enjoying middle-class comforts, their neighbors' poverty is as invisible and foreign as the slums of Calcutta.

Photo of Dee Covington as Barbara
Dee Covington as Barbara
Photo credit: Todd Webster
In an effort to bring the shocking reality of the underbelly of American capitalism to the consciousness of her fellow citizens, social critic and activist Barbara Ehrenreich went undercover to discover first hand what it's like to try to hold down two minimum wage jobs in order to live in substandard housing and have enough left over to fill your stomach once a day.

The result was Ehrenreich's book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, the first best-seller dealing with our nation's poor since Michael Harrington's Poverty in America, in the late '60's. Recently, the book's popularity has been redoubled with a stage adaptation written by American theatre legend Joan Holden, former principal playwright for the San Francisco Mime Troupe (1970-2000).

Photo of Kendra Crain and Dee Covington
Kendra Crain and Dee Covington
Photo credit: Todd Webster
Maintaining a breakneck pace throughout, Curious Theatre Company's production follows Barbara as she bounces from waitress to cleaning lady to hotel maid to nursing home attendant to discount store stocker in search of the secrets used by 32 million Americans surviving on less than $12,000 a year. What she finds is that there are no secrets, just a system rigged to maintain the cycle of poverty. "The less you have," she tells us, "the more everything costs."

Dee Covington, as Barbara, moves seamlessly between actor and narrator, now entwined in the daily indignities of her hand-to-mouth wage-slavery, now the detached analyst sharing her observations with the audience. Her impoverished co-workers are really philanthropists, she muses, because their willingness to give away their labor for a song is what affords the rest of us such cheap goods and services. Warm-hearted, shrewd, and vulnerable, Covington hooks us into her daily drama, then leaves us hanging in the wind when there's not enough money, food, or shelter on which to get by.

Photo of Gwen Harris, Dee Covington, and Christopher Leo
Gwen Harris, Dee Covington,
and Christopher Leo
Photo credit: Todd Webster
Director Chip Walton's multi-talented cast works as hard behind the set as they do on stage, popping up as co-workers, customers, patients, and bosses as quickly as they can move out one door and in the other. Kendra Crain is especially poignant as the ambitious half-starved newly-pregnant house cleaner, fighting a reaction to the nasty chemicals with which she works, afraid to quit because her boyfriend is out of a job. Christopher Leo's many characterizations range from an irrepressible immigrant cook to a refugee from Jersey pretending to be making it. Billie McBride shines as a veteran waitress and a compassionate Mall-Mart co-worker. Gwen Harris tugs at our heartstrings as the arthritic cleaning woman and the elderly maid who feels like she has it made when she's given her own room and TV. Laura Chavez's single mom, frantically calling her kids on her breaks, takes us to the brink.

This array of characters represents the experience of a hefty share of the American workforce: interviewed by computers, urine-tested, questioned over any deviation from the desired behavior of a corporate automaton, without health insurance, and often restricted from even drinking water on the job. Such treatment at the hands of fellow human beings is acceptable, we're told by one of the characters in the play, because anyone who works hard enough can make it in America; therefore, those that don't make it get what they deserve (How so-called Christians reconcile such a system with the teachings of Jesus is beyond me!). At the bottom of this socio-economic fallacy is a misconception of how capitalism works: it is a sophisticated, large-scale Ponzi scheme that must expand in order to survive; self-interest rules; and there is necessarily an under-class at the bottom of the feed chain. Here, even Ehrenreich's well-meaning efforts to increase the minimum wage miss the mark — when those at the top take more than they need, the system cannot sustain a living wage for all its workers.

Maintaining a difficult balancing act, Joan Holden's savvy adaptation avoids preaching by dramatizing the facts, which are argument enough against a system that dehumanized boss and worker alike. The moody, interstitial music composed by Lee Stametz and executed brilliantly by Denver's guitar avatar, Neil Haverstick, keeps us on the edge of our seats. Michael Duran's flexible, functional set, and Janice Benning Lacek's bright costumes, keep the focus on the performers.

Curious Theatre Company's regional premiere of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America runs through October 25th. 303-623-2349.

Bob Bows


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