On not getting by | SteamboatToday.com

On not getting by

'Nickel and Dimed' stage adaptation addresses low-wage America

Margaret Hair

— Auden Thornton, acting as journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, stands on stage in an un-air-conditioned Julie Harris Theatre, sorting clothes and looking a little bored, a little confused.

She’s at the beginning of a stint at Mall-Mart, the final phase in an experiment Ehrenreich conducted to find out what it’s really like to work for minimum wage in America. What the character learns is harder to swallow than she might have expected, said “Nickel and Dimed” playwright Joan Holden, who first adapted Ehrenreich’s book for the stage in 2002.

“She makes class-based choices, and she finds out she’s in the class she doesn’t want to be in,” Holden said. “She opts for privilege, and anyone who is really in it would have to stay in it. They don’t have a choice.”

Today and Saturday, the high school and college students at Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp bring Holden’s “Nickel and Dimed” to life at the Julie Harris Theatre. The play follows middle-class, undercover journalist Ehrenreich, as she waits tables, cleans houses and stocks clothing racks in three cities, discovering that she can’t make enough money to live comfortably – or at all – in any of those occupations.

“Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a historic book. I think it’s on the level of – you know Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring?’ It made people either see something that they hadn’t seen before, or it made them face something they knew was there but weren’t seeing,” Holden said.

“The idea of a woman like myself, a middle-class woman, going undercover and making a fool of herself trying to be a low-wage worker, that lowers my defenses and makes me want to know that story,” she said.

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After dozens of productions across the country since Holden wrote the play on commission for Seattle’s Intiman Theatre, some of the material’s inherent hurdles – that as a nonfiction work, there are no scenes, and that there really is only one character – have been worked out, Holden said.

David Baecker, director of the Perry-Mansfield production, said the subject is a break for its student cast, and allows the young actors to tackle a serious issue in a comic light.

“It has to be played at a comic pace – it’s a very funny play. You’re looking at this outsider who’s screwing up in this world she wants to be a part of,” Baecker said.

“The big thing I felt is that the production becomes more than staging a play. It pisses an audience off, and it sparks a debate, and at the end of the production it keeps going.”

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