Theater Review: Nickel and Dimed looks at service industry

Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed—On (Not) Getting By in America, has been adapted for the stage by Joan Holden. Ehrenreich began her project by planning to write a magazine article after working at minimum wage for a month. Her early experiences impelled her to expand the idea and write a book. Nickel and Dimed is the result.

Holden takes these real-life encounters and tells what they do to Barbara. Richard Raether, who directs, takes the story one step further. The original cast of six expands to 12. Raether says, “We needed each character to tell their own story.”

The addition of Betsy Kaske’s music adds another dimension. Her playing and singing are an integral part of the folk music genre, and she has been performing here and throughout the country since the earliest days of Charlotte’s Web. Her opening song, “Hard Times a-Comin’,” set the tone for the entire evening. Often on stage, her music became the emphasis for an emotional or comic moment.

The technical and design staff for Artists’ Ensemble contribute to the professionalism of every production. Martin McClendon’s clever set, constantly changing from “Kenny’s Fast Foods” to “Mall-Mart,” is backed by rusting metal panels (indicative of the “Rust Belt”). Genny Bonavia’s costumes that enable the characters to change in moments, also define their status. The stage that fills nearly half of Cheek Theatre helps bring the emotional stress of living on the edge closer to us.

Linda Abronski is Barbara, a sophisticated journalist whose youth was spent revolting against the system. As she enters the world of the “service industry,” she discovers that all she fought against in the ’60s and ’70s still exists. The progression of the play takes her from being an inquiring reporter to becoming the exploited worker. By the final scene, her anger resonates. Abronski represents the finest in theater professionals.

Familiar faces fill the stage. Playing a multitude of roles, each personal story becomes a heart-wrenching experience. Jan Bacino, Todd Bonzi, Patricia Finn-Morris, Aleida Frometa-Preval, David Gingerich, Valerie Hoglund, Jessica MacDonald, Rebecca Pink, James Rodriguez and Jenniel Wright garner their limited income from Magic Maids, Woodcrest Residential Facility, Kenny’s Restaurant, Mall-Mart and Economy Inn. These are the invisible workers who provide the services that make our lives run more smoothly. David Gingerich as the assistant manager at Mall-Mart explains why the associates often work overtime for no salary. “Labor is the only way the corporation can cut costs.”

Personal note—For weeks, I’ve been trying to purchase a new ironing board. I know…no one irons anymore. Nevertheless, this was my need. After buying the item at two local mega-stores, I found the “Made in Mexico” board would not even open. Several phone calls later, a “Made in Chicago” ironing board was found. It actually works.

In our changing world, price and convenience seems to be replacing the ability to achieve a middle-class lifestyle. Try living in your van or in a homeless shelter.

Nickel and Dimed plays through April 9 at Cheek Theatre on the Rockford College campus. For ticket information, call the box office at 226-4100.

From the March 29-April 4, 2006, issue

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