Nickel and Dimed, the Tennessee Women’s Theater Project’s new production, lacks a slick presentation. Still, the play’s provocative script, which zeros in on a contemporary hot-button political issue, more than makes up for any weaknesses.
Pitched to galvanize a certain progressive segment of the population, the play is definitely in sync with current efforts to raise the minimum wage. Certainly, after watching this work, it’s hard to be a thoughtful citizen and not wonder about the huge divide between the haves and have-nots in this country.
The script for Nickel and Dimed, adroitly adapted by Joan Holden, is based on Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 book of the same name, which in turn is based on the noted social critic’s personal journey into the underground of American minimum-wage employment. Traveling from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, Ehrenreich worked a series of low-level, unskilled jobs—as a waitress, a housecleaner, a dietary aide in a nursing home and finally as an associate at a large chain store (called “Mall Mart” here). More than just enduring the drudgery and lack of fulfillment that come with such employment, Ehrenreich made an honest attempt to support herself solely on the income from such work, a depressing exercise that proved what the underclass already knows, namely, that “the less you have, the more everything costs you.”
Ehrenreich’s rare blend of advocacy journalism and diarylike self-reflection brings us in close contact with the pathos of the underpaid’s psychic plight. When your daily grind consists of dealing with complaining customers, abusive supervisors, commode stains, used condoms, catatonic seniors, repetitive stress injury and a salary structure that makes affordable housing, child care and health insurance only a dim possibility, is it any wonder, Ehrenreich surmises, why many of these workers cherish their cigarette breaks. “They do it for themselves,” she declares, since their work is always done for others and the compensation they receive only keeps them on the razor’s edge of working-poor existence. Such people also seem to have a penchant for finding Jesus commensurate with their increased tolerance for despair.
Implied in the Ehrenreich narrative is the notion that the poor have neither the aspirations nor the social connections to easily improve their lives. For them the American dream might as well be a lottery ticket. And that makes things pretty interesting when cast members step out of character to engage the audience pointedly about their own views and attitudes on the subject.
Maryanna Clarke directs her show competently, coming up with enough interesting ideas to combat the obvious need for more technical flair. But the show has weaknesses. The lighting is bland, the set is only serviceable and a few of the set changes definitely need speeding up.
The listless pace of Act 1 has it clocking in at a taxing 90 minutes. The general pacing within scenes is acceptable, though, and otherwise the evening is saved by the force of the material, which in adapter Holden’s capable hands, gives us believable characters and a surprising amount of cathartic humor.
At times, the ensemble cast can seem unpolished, but the five individuals manage to create some original characterizations. Sonia Justl, Tamiko Robinson and Melissa Davis offer a generally credible cross-section of motley co-workers. Likewise, Sara Sharpe distinguishes herself with blue-collar steadfastness in key supporting roles. Shane Bridges has positive moments handling the show’s male roles. His characters often seemed the same, which was perhaps due to his usually playing doltish, overbearing or insensitive figures. He does manage, however, to deliver a noteworthy speech by an obtuse Mall Mart manager, who informs us that the company makes decisions based on numbers, not people.
Terry Occhiogrosso, who co-starred in TWTP’s previous production, Collected Stories, plays the Ehrenreich character. What Occhiogrosso lacks in stage presence she recoups in earnest hard work. She’s cast well, and she projects the right mix of sophisticated middle-aged cultural perspective and irony. “I’m not a post-feminist,” she says. “This isn’t my real hair color.” Occhiogrosso effectively brings the Ehrenreich outrage to bear. At the same time, she also suffers through moments of discomfort that poignantly delineate the chasm between her own (secret) prosperity and the edgy existence of her newfound colleagues. This situation receives extra force when she’s conversing long distance with her not-quite-comprehending husband, who is contentedly ensconced at home in upper-middle-class bliss hundreds of miles away.
A lineup of activists, eggheads and politicos with expertise in the low-wage world will deliver pre-show talks for the duration of the run. Speakers will include U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, state Rep. Janis Sontany (sponsor of last year’s Tennessee minimum wage bill), Jonathan White of Vanderbilt Campus Action and Belmont University sociology professor Andrea Stepnick.