In her 2001 bestseller Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, social critic Barbara Ehrenreich took an in-depth look at the challenges of the working poor in the 21st Century. Ehrenreich stepped out of the research library and into the kitchens, motels, and retail chains of Middle America, working at minimum wage and attempting to survive. The book amounts to a kind of poverty tourism; a middle-aged, white woman's journal of anthropological slumming.
Artists Repertory Theater's production of Nickel and Dimed begs the question: How does one adapt a wildly popular work of journalistic nonfiction for the stage? Playwright Joan Holden, veteran of the legendary San Francisco Mime Troupe has built her career on creating socially conscious, engaging theater, but in this case seems to have been given an impossible mission. For the stage, hard-earned weeks of journalism are conflated, characters are dropped, and most disappointingly the hard-core facts and numbers--the things that make Ehrenreich's book so sobering and provocative--are left out altogether.
At times, the play is able to summon the most lyrical and clever lines from the source verbatim. In regard to the psychology of smoke breaks, the protagonist journalist explains, "In the American workplace, the only thing people have to call their own is the tumors they are nourishing and the spare moments they devote to feeding them." This, unfortunately, is the best that it gets. Nickel and Dimed is a soulfully acted but altogether too whiny riches-to-rags story. Blistering a mile in another person's shoes does not necessarily make for good drama, especially when the glass slippers are waiting somewhere offstage, ready to be donned in case of an emergency. TOUSSAINT PERRAULT