Nickel and Dimed: A Review

By Jennifer Janviere

Last week I saw our Theatre Arts department’s production of Nickel and Dimed. This play is a stage adaptation based on author Barbara Ehrenreich’s sociological experiment working among the ranks of the lowest paid individuals in the country and documenting whether it was actually possible to get by financially doing so.  The story follows Ehrenreich through various undercover experiences in a range of minimum-wage occupations, from restaurant server to housekeeper to retail clerk.

For anyone unable to catch this play during its two week run this month, an initial reaction to the above synopsis might be that the plot sounds a bit bleak. After all, the story chronicles Ehrenreich’s stint as a member of the working poor, complete with all the indignities and hardships regularly endured by this segment of the population.

Nickel and Dimed, contrary to expectations, was surprisingly uplifting and even funny in many parts. Highlights included the main character’s wryly humorous observations, as well as a wonderfully creative shopping cart dance number strategically set inside an infamous big box retailer.

Throughout the play, the main character’s experiences range from humorous to downright depressing. There are moments when the audience laughs collectively and those during which the room falls silent.

What struck me most about this play was how easy it was to relate to the fictional protagonists as human beings. It’s a safe bet that most people watching the play will probably never have to support themselves or their families on a job that barely provides the ability to make ends meet. Everyone watching, however, has regular encounters with people that fall into this category, from the person serving breakfast at the corner diner to the clerk checking out items at the local discount store. Yet, how often do we stop to think about the complex inner realities of the strangers that we encounter in our daily lives?

These workers go about their jobs in a way that is nearly invisible to society. Often they are disrespected and subjected to working conditions that are difficult at best and dangerous at worst. Seeing this reality brought to life, even in a fictional setting, causes us to reexamine our interactions with others. And it reminds us of an important lesson that we sometimes forget in the daily bustle of our hectic lives; namely, to treat others with respect and empathy.

This play is one that I wish everyone could see. By presenting us with this unflinching view of the working poor, we begin to consider things from a perspective other than our own and put ourselves into the perspective of another person for a few fleeting, imaginary moments. Nickel and Dimed forces us to reexamine our beliefs about the people and situations that we see everyday and don’t always think to question. Perhaps most importantly, it causes the viewer to relate with the life situation of someone else, and to be aware of the lives of those around us.

Particularly in our current economic reality, when so many people continue to grapple with unemployment, financial hardship and making ends meet from one day to the next, Nickel and Dimed is a play with an important message.

View more photos from the show on the college Flickr page

Jennifer Janviere is a multimedia specialist and instructor in the Diederich College of Communication.

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The opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views of Marquette University or the Diederich College of Communication.

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