Sunday, May 6, 2018

NoExit Performance's 'Nickel and Dimed': Working Americans at the lower margin of the middle class take the stage

Finding constituents to cast as being among life's victims can be a source of political capital for ambitious office-seekers.

Waitress Barbara attempts to stay calm trying to please a persnickety family.
In the last presidential election, we heard loud promises about coming to the rescue of "forgotten Americans." Whether voters so labeled turned out for the victor because they accepted the victim mantle or not, there's no doubt many Americans could cite several reasons why their country is no longer working for them.

Barbara Ehrenreich, a Democratic socialist of wide reputation as a writer, was there early to observe
the work-life troubles of our times. In 2001 she published an account of the work experiences she took on among Americans struggling to get by. "Nickel and Dimed" as a title captured how expensive it is to live without backup resources — working two or more jobs, dealing with family problems against a fraying social safety net, lacking relief from the woes of illness or injury.

NoExit Performance has taken on Joan Holden's stage adaptation of Ehrenreich's book. The setting of the production — in a bingo hall in an east-side neighborhood with conspicuous vacancies in a strip-mall environment — adheres to NoExit's mission to put on plays in unconventional environments that have resonance with particular shows.

Callie Burk-Hartz, this production's director, writes in the program booklet of personal experience with parallels to Ehrenreich's: service-industry employment and the shock of discovering how few resources lie behind most people who hold these jobs. Acts of kindness from co-workers are gratefully received Band-Aids applied to festering wounds. Ehrenreich's submersion in this world was a matter of self-assignment; for Burk-Hartz, it was a necessity as she tried to gain a foothold in an artistic career.

Ironically, the political sustenance many candidates draw upon has not "forgotten" such people as much as it has whitewashed a significant portion of the population that political rhetoric routinely celebrates as "hard-working Americans." As Ehrenreich's subtitle makes clear, that phrase shouldn't be a source of national pride, because her book examines "on (not) getting by in America." The working poor are indeed nickel-and-dimed; life in their stratum of society, it turns out, is expensive.

The playing areas are widely separated around the open room at 3633 E. Raymond St. Scenes pop up here and there, and patrons in comfortable office chairs on wheels can swivel around or scoot back and forth as needed to get a better view. That manner of presentation complements Ehrenreich's geographically distant spheres of her adopted work life: Florida, Maine, and Minnesota.

The success of this production is keyed to the performance of Bridget Haight as Barbara. She makes clear Barbara has a pretty good idea of what she's getting in for — yet still is shocked and enlightened by the difficulty of the assignment. In addition to the short scenes in nursing homes, restaurants, a retail behemoth here called Mall-Mart (but given its obvious name in the book), private homes and businesses using strictly controlled cleaning services, Barbara pauses to address the audience. This device keeps Ehrenreich's first-person narrative alive in this stage version.

Haight's performance Saturday skillfully reflected the wear-and-tear on Barbara of the successive humiliations and overwork the writer elected to take on. Barbara doggedly shares the difficulties of  people who lack her last-ditch options to leave a particular scene or rely in secret on a credit card to escape thorough destitution.

Barbara and Melissa bond over sorting items in a megastore.
The scenes that had the most verve and searing impact were usually the somewhat extended workplace sketches: the "theme" chain restaurant with countless brand-enhancing practices and cost-cutting rules, the home-cleaning service crew rent by internal difficulties and challenged by rich clients' self-absorption, the poignant bonding with a determinedly upbeat wife and mother (a sensitive portrayal by Carrie Bennett)  in the Wal-Mart work force.

The scenes of Barbara stepping aside from this life to consult with her editor or smooth things over with a boyfriend complete the picture we get of the main character. For some reason, however, they seemed dutiful and somewhat formulaic. The scenes that sizzled had Barbara agonizingly engaged with her project in low-level jobs, learning directly about people who will never escape marginalization. The oppressive atmosphere of control, which runs throughout most American work environments, is at least in some of them financially well-compensated. In the milieus Barbara becomes familiar with, the control and dehumanization, the fussy rules and inflexibility, work hand in glove with low pay and few, if any, benefits.

"Nickel and Dimed" is worth reading in the original for its wealth of detail. And the stage show necessarily has to sketch in the essentials while leaving out some of the analysis that makes Ehrenreich's book such a rewarding read. Yet having the harrowing situations she faced represented in the flesh on a generally high level of realism makes this production a memorable enhancement to reading a book that not so long ago proclaimed an unpleasant truth: If we've forgotten these Americans, it's because, on some level of blind reverence for the American way of life, we wanted to.

[Photos by Daniel Axler]