Scraping By

"Nickel and Dimed" chronicles the hardships faced daily by America's low-wage earners.

They cross our paths all the time, yet most of us rarely give them a second thought: the woman who empties your office wastebaskets, the cook who makes your BLT at the corner deli, the hotel maid who changes the towels and sheets during your weekend getaway.

For many of these people, the word "Survivor" is not the title of a TV show — it's life without benefit of a remote control.

This month, Cleveland Public Theatre and Great Lakes Theater Festival bring "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" to the CPT stage. The play, based on Barbara Ehrenreich's eye-opening 2001 book of the same title, offers a harsh glimpse at the condition of America's working poor. Ehrenreich, a frequent contributor to Time and The New Republic, chronicled how that segment of our population lives — or, in many cases, doesn't, since inadequate health-care benefits can take their toll.

To research her subject, Ehrenreich spent two years employed at low-wage jobs throughout Florida, Maine and Minnesota. She discovered that "home" can mean an endless cycle of living in dilapidated motels or out of cars because nothing else is affordable.

Adapted for the stage by San Francisco playwright Joan Holden two years ago, "Nickel and Dimed" premiered at Seattle's Intiman Theatre in 2002 before heading to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.

Like many theatrical pairings, CPT's alliance with Great Lakes Theater Festival was kismet. Both institutions shared an interest in staging the play, a situation GLTF associate artistic director Andrew May describes as "two stars colliding at the same time."

"I've always been astounded that each Cleveland theater acts very much like its own island," May says. "Sometimes, they do it out of naiveté, sometimes out of stupidity and sometimes because in theater you get so damn busy you don't have time to talk to anybody else.

"Partnerships are the way to go," he adds. "Not only are they economically feasible, but they make for better artistic flow." And, in this case, for fresh ambiance, since GLTF patrons accustomed to Playhouse Square's Ohio Theatre will journey to the near West Side for performances.

"Experiencing theater in a place like Gordon Square is different because it strips away a lot of the formality audiences are used to," says CPT artistic director Randy Rollison.

Since the play is being staged in the round, audience members will feel as though they are a part of it. As a result, Rollison hopes, they'll be as moved by the message as he was.

"The most poignant moments in the play are what happened to me as a result of it," he explains. "I had just read it, and I went to a takeout food place. They were taking way too long for my taste, and I was very impatient.

"But then, I looked into this woman's eyes when she handed me the food. She looked so beaten down, and I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm such an ass.' "

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