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COIN-OPERATED: The Pear's players scramble for minimum wage in 'Nickel and Dimed.'

Wage Woes

Pear Avenue's 'Nickel and Dimed' loses something in translation from journalism to drama

By Matthew Craggs

WHILE CNN and the Wall Street Journal tackle bankrupt banks and crashing CEOs, Pear Avenue Theatre takes a microscopic look at America's financial hardships in its latest production, Nickel and Dimed. Based on the book by undercover journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, the story follows Ehrenreich's attempt to make a living on minimum wage. In 2001, Ehrenreich's book helped to open America's eyes to the major differences between minimum wages and living wages. The play, by Joan Holden, succeeds in making many of the same points, but most of the heart and humanity is lost in the format transition.

In translating the journalistic, nonfiction account of the hardships of living on minimum wage, Holden chooses to rely heavily on the theatrical technique of breaking the fourth wall. While it can be an effective maneuver in actively engaging an audience, when used in excess a play can suffer. As Barbara (Patricia Tyler) wrestles with grunt work, she delivers almost half of her lines directly to the audience. At this frequency, the play begins to feel like a workplace-sensitivity seminar that uses skits to hold the audience's attention between bullet points. At no point is this more obvious than when the entire cast stops the show, breaks character and raises the house lights to ask the audience how much they pay their cleaning staff. Therein lies the major problem of relying on the destruction of the fourth wall to drive Nickel and Dimed.

Holden very rarely allows the characters' emotions and decisions to comment on poverty, decency and illogical wage laws. Speeches intoned directly to the audience about these issues regularly interrupt the acting. Director Ann Kuchins does help some of the minor characters free themselves from Holden's script, but it's too little and too late. With the exception of Tyler's sole role and stage manager Johanna Ruefli's dual roles, there are 36 characters split between the remaining five actors. For the most part the actors all do a good job of distinguishing their repertoire of characters, though a "Where are they now?" wrap-up at the end reveals some forgettable roles.

Standing out from the ensemble are Kendra Owens and Elizabeth Coy. Their characters are the only ones allowed to show the humanity and heart that should have driven the play. Owens plays both a motel maid named Carlie and Barbara's born-again, Mall-mart co-worker, Melissa. These two characters struggle with little resources but each find unique ways to celebrate and, in the only touching scene of the show, share what little they have. One of Coy's characters, Holly, exemplifies the strength and determination born solely from someone fighting an uphill battle.

Over the course of 2-1/2 hours, around 40 set changes show the difficult migration from book to stage. However, this obstacle is one unequivocally conquered thanks to an ingenious set design by Norm Beamer. Four chairs and a small table supplement a great multitasking set piece that morphs into a kitchen counter, bathroom, Mall-mart display stand and a chef's window. Amounting to nothing more than spare change, the rare moments of great acting can't save Ehrenreich's work from Holden's script. In the end, it's the audience that's left nickel and dimed.

NICKEL AND DIMED, plays Thursday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Nov. 9 at the Pear Avenue Theatre, 1220 Pear Ave., Unit K, Mountain View. Tickets are $12–$30. (650.254.1148)

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