When author and social commentator Barbara Ehrenreich decided to look at the rising tide of poor people in America, she realized that the best way to understand what was so troubling about the situation was to experience it first-hand. So she set a few basic rules for herself and then, leaving her upscale Florida neighborhood and rather confused boyfriend behind her, she set off for places where she would be unrecognized and set about learning what “minimum wage” really meant. The result, which was supposed to be merely a Harper’s Magazine article, developed into a full-scale non-fiction book, which spent two years on The New York Times‘ best-seller list.

Her study, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America, has been turned into a play by adapter Joan Holden. Ms. Holden attended the closing weekend of the play as it had its North Carolina premiere in Cary this month, presented by Raleigh’s Justice Theatre Project. Directed by the JTP’s artistic director, Deb Royals-Mizerk, Nickel and Dimed relates directly to the audience what kind of difficulty, suffering, and even humiliation is experienced by nearly all those who are forced to work for what is (as many have tried to tell the government for years) laughingly termed a living wage. The play and its protagonist, “Barb” (Ehrenreich’s cover), launch a full-scale attack on those who insist on pretending that “minimum wage” and “living wage” mean the same thing.

Barb (Betsy Henderson) works and lives in three different locales across the country: Florida, Maine, and Minnesota. Though she has told herself that she will work a month each place, her first experience, as a waitress at “Kenny’s,” only lasts a week. She cannot accept it, not the treatment (by both bosses and customers), not the low-rent living conditions that are still too expensive, and not the woes of her cohorts which being who and what she is she wants to assist, but cannot.

Barb is aided in her complex tale by an excellent ensemble of actors who play a gamut of roles, from fellow employees and poor, to snobbish clients, nasty customers, cynical bosses, and even to her own horror a social worker she must visit for housing and food. The full cast including Henderson only numbers nine, but they fill the stage with a multitude and cross-section of the people who live in the areas she visits. Only two of the cast, Sean Brosnahan and John Honeycutt, are male; when one stops to consider, however, that most of the working poor are single mothers trying to support a family, it is not surprising.

Henderson plays the wise-cracking, acerbic Barbara with a tremendous understanding, and a great deal of off-hand wit. She is both shocked and dismayed by what she witnesses, but she uses her anger to blast the people who are getting rich off of the situations she encounters. Henderson allows us to see the strong character that Barbara has, but also how, when faced with these inequities, she is shaken to her very core.

Barbara meets, in turns, Gail (Yolanda Batts), the waitress who has many small children at home; Joan (Jackie Marriott), the hostess who lives in her van; Holly (Rebecca Nerz), the young team leader of a maid service who is pregnant; one of the rich women who hires “Magic Maids” to clean her (huge) house (Patricia Phillips); a too-cheerful social worker (Rachel Green); and a “Mall-Mart” customer from hell (Christy Throndson). But these are only a few of the seemingly universally unhappy people she confronts on her journey through this economic underbelly. This fine ensemble assembles a full 25 characters on-stage with excellent control and aplomb.

This particular production sports not only a very apt array of songs for preshow and intermission, but also a duo which performs original music to underscore the work, written by Francis Dyer. The play pulls no punches; it indicates in words addressed directly to us the whys of the situation: those who cannot turn down the chance to work, combined with those who are determined to take full advantage of them. This remarkable cast made it work on a stage as very nearly empty as a Shakespearean set, with characterizations that made us care for these individuals and want to do more for them. An excellent play has been written for an excellent reason, and it is bare-faced, direct and completely impossible to ignore.

The Justice Theater Project: http://www.thejusticetheaterproject.org/ [inactive 4/05].

*Editor’s Note: Alan R. Hall is a Chapel Hill, NC freelance writer, reviewer, novelist, and poet. He has written theater reviews for the Georgia State University System and the online writers’ network “Themestream.” For 11 years, he wrote reviews on theater, music, dance, and film for The Chapel Hill News. For more of his candid critiques on Triangle theater, see Front Row Center: http://hometown.aol.com/theonlyarhall/reviews.html.