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ISSUE 118 VOL 11 PUBLISHED 2/25/2005

Play shortchanges working class

By Rebecca Lofft
Staff Writer

Friday, February 25, 2005

St. Olaf’s presentation of “Nickel and Dimed” – Joan Holden’s stage adaptation of Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickel and Dimed: On (not) Getting By in America – capably showcased some of the hardships faced by blue-collar America in the workplace.

Unfortunately the production, constrained by Holden’s unsteady adaptation, too often downplayed the serious message of mistreated, hardworking and underpaid workers by emphasizing the comic moments in Holden’s script.

To no fault of director Dona Werner Freeman, Holden’s adaptation failed to illustrate the extreme hardships the working class must face daily. The play’s overwhelming amount of personal narrative revealed its bookish origins, and its lack of action and dialogue that would have kept viewers engaged. If Holden’s purpose in adapting Ehrenreich’s book was to display the injustice of the American economy, she would have better accomplished her goal by revealing more behind-the-scenes action in working-class jobs than to focus so much on affluent author Ehrenreich.

Nonetheless, the St. Olaf Theatre Department managed to work with the material to successfully stage yet another play about controversial and timely issues.

Dionne Laviolette ‘07, who played Ehrenreich, captured the author’s upper-class snootiness as well as the frustration of lower-to-middle class America surprisingly well. The working environments from a frantic “Kenny’s” restaurant to the depressingly boring “Mall-Mart” showed the audience how blue-collar jobs can be exhausting whether from frenzy or from boredom. The Mall-Mart scene showecased how a stagnant job can cause apathy towards employment.

Laviolette’s lines were weighty and defined location with an actor’s narrative instead of props or scenery – a throwback to Shakespeare.

The creative use of all-purpose pillars on stage by Artist-in-Residence-in-Theatre Freeman was efficient and appealing. In its bright colors the facade was reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright art glass designs.

Due to the high concentration of English-as-a-second-language speakers in blue-collar jobs, many actors in “Nickel and Dimed” were required to perfect accents, including Czech, Spanish and Minnesotan. Using stereotypical accents, David Middlecamp ‘05 achieved adept comic realism; as a lost Mall-Mart shopper clad in a poofy purple Minnesota Vikings jacket. He sported a Minnesotan accent so thick that even Sven and Ole would be taken aback.

Megan Hughes ‘06, as the passive but high-strung, over-achieving Magic Maid Holly, achieved her character with great realistic effect. She nailed the mannerisms of a hard-working woman subjected to working underneath a heartless boss.

Thomas Borger ‘06, as the assistant manager of Mall-Mart, personified the reality that, despite knowing that workers are overworked and underpaid, even blue-collar management has a job to keep.

The range of characters portrayed by Colin Christie ’07 – from a dippy grocery worker to a chauvinistic Magic Maid boss – showcased his remarkable talent.

The use of film projection in “Nickel and Dimed” reflected techniques currently used in London theatre. These were often a positive distraction from the production’s sometimes-dull narrative. However, the choice of music in “Nickel and Dimed” seemed disjointed and awkward, as if no one was quite sure what kind of music to play between scenes.

The ultimate relevance of “Nickel and Dimed” to St. Olaf students is debatable. A mottled milieu of students exists on our campus: students whose parents pay full tuition, students on near to full scholarship and students paying tuition through loans, work-study and even jobs not unlike those described in the play. “Nickel and Dimed” is like a vitamin play, doing wonders for the privileged to see the non-privileged side of life – people trying to cover their bare necessities, for whom learning another language is a luxury and not an abhorrent general education requirement.

However, the play lacks a final proposal for how to remedy the imbalance of our American class structure. Perhaps Ehrenreich, seated in her cushy position as a famous writer, isn’t actually as dissatisfied with the inequalities of American society as she purports herself to be.

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