KPBS AIRDATE: October 18, 2002
“Work,” said psychotherapist Abraham Low, “is getting paid to bear discomfort.” Or, as essayist Alfred Polgar put it, “Work is what you do so that some time you won’t have to do it any more.” On stages in San Diego and L.A., working stiffs are getting their 15 minutes of fame — celebrated in song in a reprise production of “Working, The Musical” at the San Diego Rep, and in the world premiere of “Nickel and Dimed” at the Mark Taper Forum. Both come from literary sources. “Working” is based on published interviews conducted by Pulitzer Prize-winning social historian Studs Terkel. “Nickel and Dimed” is Joan Holden’s adaptation of the best-seller of the same name by Barbara Ehrenreich.
In 1981, when the Rep first produced “Working,” it was moving and significant, a credible series of vignettes about white and blue-collar workers. The glitzy new production feels slick and theatricalized, upgrading the production values while downgrading the work force. The musical revue, though well staged and well sung, makes us nod and say, “My, aren’t they talented, portraying all those different workers?” And, “Boy, that fireman monologue really resonates this year.”
But we respond viscerally, not intellectually, to “Nickel and Dimed.” Ehrenreich’s story goes right to the bone and below, to hit raw, guilt-ridden nerve. The award-winning social critic went underground for a few months, leaving her cushy life behind and taking minimum-wage jobs in Florida, Maine and Minnesota, to try and subsist at the poverty level. We get that queasy-uneasy feeling of collective guilt, coupled with the aching awareness of how much sheer luck separates us from our low-wage brethren, and the painful realization that their mind-numbing, back-breaking labor subsidizes our comfortable, middle-class lives.
This is thought-provoking, social action theater, heartbreaking, but often funny, too. Less agit-prop than consciousness-raising. Enough to increase our compassion or spur us to do something different, even if it’s only to tip higher, or pay more attention to the servers, salespeople and house-cleaners around us. The play, which centers on an engaging Sharon Lockwood as the frazzled, overwhelmed Ehrenreich, is true to the book and theatrical in all sorts of inventive ways, under Bartlett Sher’s creative direction, backed by John Arnone’s imaginative sets. We really get to know the changing characters in “Nickel and Dimed” — and we really come to care about them. Unlike the book, at the end, we actually find out what happened to the workers after Ehrenreich left each job. She may not have changed their lives or attitudes, but she might just change ours.
©2002 Patté Productions Inc.