‘Nickel and Dimed’ gives more than a penny for our thoughts

Avi Small, Writer

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In the shadow of the Beyonce Super Bowl Spectacular, it’s helpful to take a step back and remember that a performance does not have to overwhelm the senses in order to be effective. Often, it is the subtle performance of a quiet play that can have an immense impact — no pyrotechnics needed.

“Nickel and Dimed,” the most recent play from Northwestern’s Theatre and Interpretation Center, is one such subtle performance. Based on Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 nonfiction book, this play is an account of the three months she spent undercover as a member of the American working class. The author spends each month in a different location: as a waitress in Florida, a house-cleaner in Maine and a Wal-Mart employee in Minnesota (though presumably to prevent copyright issues, the store is comically referred to as “Mall-Mart”). In each location, she discovers the different personalities who make up the working class and the challenges they face. Fans of Ehrenreich’s book will be pleased to see this play is a mostly faithful adaptation, keeping Ehrenreich’s liberal indignation in the forefront of every working-class setting.

This production is so effective because it gives a human face to the working class. As played by NU students, each worker Barbara encounters has depth — they’re not simply caricatures. Juanita Andersen as Gail, a tough waitress, opens the show and grabs the audience’s attention. Gail quickly shows the audience that no matter how low-wage her job is, it is by no means “unskilled.” Amelia Hefferon, as Mall-Mart employee Melissa, is the embodiment of Midwestern kindness; she provides a perfect counterpoint to Gail’s rough, businesslike attitude.

Playing Ehrenreich herself, Laura Winters is both protagonist and narrator. During the course of the show, she breaks the fourth wall with a pseudo-Power Point presentation in which she describes her wages and living conditions to the audience. Funny and persuasive anecdotes directed at the audience are sprinkled throughout, such as the section devoted to explaining, in intricate detail, the challenges house-cleaners face from human excrement. Winters shows us how Ehrenreich was transformed by her situation, changing her from generous, liberal “Barbara” into “stubborn, defeated ‘Barb.'” It’s clear Ehrenreich is in a complicated situation: Although she clearly has honorable intentions for her expose, her middle-class moral standards often clash with her coworkers’ need to simply get by.

“Nickel and Dimed” presents a compassionate look at America’s working class through a theatrical lens. Although it occasionally veers into sanctimonious territory, this play challenges us in the audience to confront our own conceptions of what poverty is in contemporary America. Though this production lacks showy, in-your-face theatrical magic, its subtle depiction of life in the underclass rings truer than any elaborate performance could.