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Real Working Barb

Ehrenreich's book comes to the stage


If the goal of art is to teach and delight, then Nickel and Dimed, the new play put on by Spontaneous Productions--directed by David Rose with stage management by Buffie Main--succeeds quite well. The play, written by Joan Holden, is based on Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, On (Not) Getting By in America. Ehrenreich is a freelance writer who went "underground" as a minimum-wage worker to see how it was to live a life with no great prospect of moving out of the daily grind--or of moving up the salary scale. She joined the working poor.

Ehrenreich found that one job was not enough to pay the rent, and, like many other working poor, she had to work two to three jobs just to meet her rent and food expenses. When Ehrenreich's husband gets annoyed with her tenacity of sticking with her "assignment," he tells her he won't apologize for the comforts he has; he worked seven-day weeks to get to where he is now, and he can't help it if some people "just don't want to work." Ehrenreich replies that she doesn't know any people who don't want to work. Nickel and Dimed dramatizes this fact as we see Ehrenreich going from a waitress job to a maid job, to work in a nursing home and in a retail discount store. The workers she meets just "keep on keepin' on." They don't complain. They worry about their kids, their spouses and keeping minimum-wage jobs, but they don't complain about the work. No one seems to complain about the work or working conditions except Ehrenreich.

Ehrenreich is a social activist and Holden's play is a socioeconomic commentary told with wit and candor. It does indeed both teach and delight. Eight actors play about 30 characters. The pace is steady and the dialogue engaging. The audience is challenged to face their own possible abuses of the working poor in order to support a more comfortable lifestyle. The challenge is not heavy-handed, but the play is definitely thought-provoking. Chris Kelly does a fine job of portraying Ehrenreich, sincerely trying to pass herself off as a minimum-wage earner. Her interactions with all of her co-workers make up the crux of the drama, and the co-workers are rich in character. Not only do they work hard all day, they have family dramas, including little kids left home alone because there isn't enough money for day care. At one point, Ehrenreich is offered a place on a co-worker's couch when she is unable to find an affordable place to live. Ehrenreich declines, but realizes that it is an offer that a "real working Barb" probably would have had to accept. We learn that the federal guidelines for poverty are based on the cost of food, not on the cost of housing, which has rents skyrocketing way beyond the reach of the minimum wage. In order to come up with the first and last month's rent, a government official suggests that Ehrenreich move into a shelter to save for the down payment.

Raised in the union town of Butte, Montana, where her father worked in a copper mine, Ehrenreich never forgets her roots and the struggle between labor and management. She knows workers' rights, and she tries to enlighten her co-workers. They are largely skeptical of her and fearful of losing their jobs if they assert these rights. There is no condescension in this play. Ehrenreich is humbled, as is the audience, by the courage of these workers who clock in every day, not expecting anybody to give them a break.

The mission of Spontaneous Productions is "to present plays that know no social or sexual boundaries and to produce works that carry a message of hope, understanding and humor." With Nickel and Dimed as their season opener, it looks like it this is going to be an intriguing season. This play has many insights and observations that make it a rich theatrical experience.

February 15-17, 8 p.m., $15 general admission, $20 reserved seating. Visual Arts Collective, 1419 Grove St. Tickets available by calling 208-363-7053 or 208-573-0623 or visiting Tickets are also available at the door. Visit for more information.