Curtain Calls

By Donald V. Calamia

Review: 'Nickel and Dimed'

Writer walks in working poor's shoes

Those of us who have always lived a solid middle class existence have never had to juggle multiple low-paying jobs in order to pay the rent. Nor have we had to forgo some of life's necessities - food, for example - if we missed a day or two of work.

It's the struggles of the working poor that are examined in "Nickel and Dimed" at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre in West Bloomfield. The play is a 2002 adaptation of Barbara Ehrenreich's book, "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America," by Joan Holden.

Between 1998 and 2000, Ehrenreich - a noted author and social commentator - anonymously visited three cities where she found entry-level jobs and then tried to support herself on those wages. "I waited tables, I cleaned the toilets of the rich, I fed Alzheimers (sic) patients in a nursing home, I sorted stock at Wal-Mart. All these were difficult, exhausting jobs, and it made me understand what a serious mistake our nation made with welfare reform," she wrote in a 2002 commentary. It's those experiences that shaped her popular, but controversial book.

The play's central character and narrator is Ehrenreich herself, played with honest conviction by Barbara Coven. "Can a single female land in a strange town, find a crappy job and survive for a month?" she asks. She tries - in Florida, Maine and Minnesota - but what she discovers is a way of life tougher than she ever anticipated.

Because Holden's script is "an advocacy play" - that is, it has a specific political point of view, and as such, its mission is to forward that agenda - how you respond to this well-staged, thought-provoking production will likely depend on your political persuasion and economic philosophies. Liberals will applaud its forthright look at the plight of the working poor, while conservatives will decry its "all businesses are intrinsically evil" philosophy, and call the script anti-capitalistic and anti-Christian. And I suspect some of the working poor - if they could afford a ticket - would recognize Ehrenreich as a well-meaning liberal crusader whose help is neither asked for nor wanted - but who butts into their lives anyway without understanding the territory.

The show's many other characters are brought to life by a fine ensemble of talented performers: MaryJo Cuppone, Andrew Huff, Charlotte M. Leisinger, Charlotte J. Nelson and Annie Palmer. Although each creates a wide range of fully realized and sympathetic characters, it strains credibility - and it's initially quite confusing - when Nelson and Cuppone play male characters. Cuppone, an incredibly sexy woman, is especially difficult to believe as Hector, a Latino cook - despite her excellent portrayal. (Quite frankly, my first reaction was to thank director Yolanda Fleischer for including an out-and-proud dyke in the show - an interpretation that I thought worked quite well until "she" was revealed to be a "he." Oh, well!)

"Nickel and Dimed" is staged Wed., Thu., Sat. & Sunday by the Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company at the DeRoy Theater on the campus of the Jewish Community Center, 6600 W. Maple, West Bloomfield, through Dec. 4. Tickets: $25-$37. For information: 248-788-2900 or http://www.jettheatre.org.

The Bottom Line: An important discussion gets a thoughtful staging - no matter on which side of the political table you sit.

Review: 'Action'

Actions speak louder than words at The Abreact

Have you ever walked out of a theater and asked yourself, "What was that playwright thinking?" Quickly followed by, "And what possessed that theater to produce it?"

That was my initial reaction to "Action," a one-act that opened last Friday night at the The Abreact, on the fringe of Detroit's Greektown district.

Apparently, I wasn't alone in that assessment. The handful of people who followed me out the door echoed the same sentiments that were rummaging through my head at the time.

But "Action" is a Sam Shepard play - and it often takes time to sift through the playwright's often-absurdist situations before his intentions become clear. That's especially true with "Action," an early work of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright that almost defies description.

"Action's" four characters - Lupe, Liza, Jeep and Shooter - appear to be related only by circumstance. A terrible tragedy has befallen - a nuclear holocaust, perhaps? - and the dark circles under their eyes and pallid faces reveal a tough life with little hope. "Remember the days of mass communication?" Lupe reflects. "When there was something to do every moment?"

There's certainly not much happening now, as the four sit, stare, play Solitaire and take turns rambling - often to no one in particular. It's a solitary existence in a group setting.

Shepard's work often details the America many of us choose not to acknowledge: a violent nation filled with unhappy, disillusioned people. And he tells his stories through words that are gritty, yet poetic.

I suspect it's the powerful dialogue that attracts theater folk to this rarely produced play. (Shepard, in fact, has been somewhat dismissive of his early works. "To say they were well-thought out, they weren't. They were a pulse," he once said in a PBS documentary.)

However, The Abreact's production crackles to life under the fine direction of Chuck Reynolds. This is a vibrant, focused staging, with something happening - no matter how small - every second of the evening.

But it's Reynold's spit-polished cast that takes this odd little script and breathes life into its four unique characters.

Amy Arena has the least to do as Liza, but she makes the most of it. Her character has become the mother hen of the group, and she's the most oblivious to the world around her. (Is that why her back is to the audience throughout much of the show?)

Katherine Galazka's Lupe is on the verge of quietly cracking, but she struggles to keep it together. It's a nicely nuanced performance.

It's the Planet Ant team of Eric Maher (Jeep) and Rollo Rollin(Shooter), however, that steals the show. Maher has great fun with the mental and emotional rollercoaster his character rides, while Rollin's expressive eyes, face and body always reveal the current depths of Shooter's grasp on reality.

"Action" is staged Fri.-Sat. at The Abreact, 442 E. Lafayette, Detroit, through Dec. 3, plus Sun., Nov. 27. Free admission/donations welcomed! For information: 313-378-5404 or http://www.theabreact.com.

The Bottom Line: Tight direction and a wonderfully skilled cast breathe life into one of Sam Shepard's lesser, rarely performed works.

Click here for additional theater coverage, including reviews of "Fences" (Plowshares Theatre Co.), "Sez She" (UDM Theatre Company) & "Golda's Balcony" (Fisher Theatre).

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