She Works Hard for the Money

Actors Theatre has struck pay dirt with Nickel and Dimed, playwright Joan Holden's comic adaptation of Barbara Ehrenreich's nonfiction best seller Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, in which noted author and activist Ehrenreich went undercover as a minimum-wage earner to write about how the working poor make ends meet in America. The irony can't be lost on AT fans and subscribers, who've been aware all season that the company's coffers are nearly empty and that this season may be its last.

Holden crafted this work of fiction from Ehrenreich's exploits as a diner waitress and hotel maid in Florida; a housekeeper and nursing-home assistant in Maine; and a Wal-Mart clerk in Minnesota, where she expected this more liberal state would provide better wages and lower rent. (She was mistaken.) Everywhere she landed, Ehrenreich struggled to find housing and to feed herself with only the income from these jobs, discovering along the way that being broke and dependent on lousy wages made her grovel and feel small.

Any take on the working poor from a member of the middle class is questionable. It's a story that's hard to tell without harping on the various injustices of the economic system, and harder still to turn into entertainment that doesn't martyr the people who clean hotel rooms and sling hash and fold sweaters for seven bucks an hour and less. But one doesn't have to look hard to find Holden's smart influence on Ehrenreich's story: The frenetic movement and commedia dell'arte technique she brings to her work as principal playwright for the oddball San Francisco Mime Troupe are all over the script, which informs Ehrenreich's story with the kind of desperation that minimum-wage earners live with every day. Holden understands the need for comedy in a story about people who are practically starving, and balances funny dialogue (spoken in copious dialects) with sly potshots at the big guys who are keeping the little man (and woman) down. She's named the evil corporate giant superstore where Barbara takes a mind-numbing job "Mal-Mart"; the sleazy interstate diner is "Kenny's"; and every place where she works is managed by a hardhearted loser with an eye on the bottom line who we take no little pleasure from laughing at. Think Studs Terkel's Working without the stereotypes and the showy musical numbers.

The five-actor ensemble turns out an astonishing range of personalities -- 35 in all -- and if there's a star among them, it's Elaine Bardwell, who impersonates a super-serene Born-Again Wal-Mart clerk and a slouching, pissed-off hotel maid with equal flair. So skillful are Bardwell's performances that I had to keep checking my program to make sure it was her up there, in a different wig and costume.

Maria Amorocho is no slouch, either. She plays men (Hector, a sleazy Denny's line cook with hair net and cholo accent), girls (Maddy, an impatient, underpaid housecleaner who can't afford a baby sitter for her two kids), and an ancient, crotchety Alzheimer's patient as if she'd lived as each of these people for a lifetime. Among Patti Davis Suarez's several solid characterizations, Gail, a head waitress who's more interested in romance than a career, is the best. At once warm and snappish, Gail is every hard-luck dame who ever served you a Grand Slam.

As Barbara, Cathy Dresbach is utterly convincing as both a confident journalist and a deeply humbled activist, and director Kirk Jackson wisely lets her show off her ample clowning skills, as when she pitches a comic fit in a Wal-Mart clothing department -- a bit so funny it received an ovation on opening night.

I'm relieved that Jackson deleted a sequence in which some of the actors break character to poll the audience about their income and whether they employ "help," although I suspect it's that deletion that made similar sequences later in the play -- midway through Act Two, characters other than Barbara are suddenly speaking directly to us, too -- seem out of place. But these tiny flaws hardly disrupt an otherwise perfect production; a wise, witty commentary on American horrors and a social diatribe that manages to be entertaining and thought-provoking but somehow never preachy.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela