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The Have-Nothings

A Stages show looks into life on minimum wage

America is turning into a land of the have-lots and the have-nothings. The middle class is shrinking, and minimum wage has stayed at $5.15 an hour since 1997. Getting by in this country has turned into a real struggle for many hardworking folks, with some holding down two and three backbreaking jobs just to pay the rent. Joan Holden's Nickel & Dimed (On Not Getting By in America), based on Barbara Ehrenreich's book of the same title, explores the lives of those living on the economic edge of our country. And the production now running at Stages Repertory Theatre, as directed by Brad Dalton, does a fairly good job of capturing the broad-stroke truths of that struggle.

At the center of the play is Ehrenreich (Connie Cooper), an ultra-liberal, ultra-educated dame who thinks she knows what it means to be a blue-collar worker in America. After all, her father worked for the mines. So confident is she of her liberal politics that when her editor sends her out to immerse herself in the trenches of the working class, she thinks she has nothing to learn. It isn't long before she discovers how naive a smart woman can be.

Her plan is to live on the money she makes as a waitress, a maid and, finally, a "Mallmart" employee. Day one teaches her a thing or two when the boss and the customers treat her as if she were less than human. Not only is the work more humiliating than she imagined, it is almost more physically demanding than her middle-aged body can take. And the economic problems she encounters are much deeper than she anticipated. Affordable housing comes in the form of a rattle-trap trailer, if it comes at all. And to pay the rent, she must hold down two jobs that require lots of standing and lifting and putting up with nasty behavior. Even a woman as clever and resourceful as Ehrenreich is eventually undone by a culture that believes that anyone who isn't making it must be doing something wrong.

To pay the rent, Barbara Ehrenreich (Connie Cooper, with Susan O. Koozin) must work two jobs and put up with nasty behavior.
Bruce Bennett
To pay the rent, Barbara Ehrenreich (Connie Cooper, with Susan O. Koozin) must work two jobs and put up with nasty behavior.

Details

Nickel & Dimed:Through June 11, $25-$35.

Witness for the Prosecution: Through June 11, $19-$51.

Nickel & Dimed: Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.

Witness for the Prosecution: Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.

The good intentions of this play are admirable. And one is tempted to overlook the fact that many of the working-class characters (all played by a charismatic cast at Stages) come off as hackneyed stereotypes. The Latino cook is a violent lover of women who turns out to be illegal and gets deported when he's caught committing a crime. The friendly waitress is a good old Southern gal who gets in with bad men and seems to be able to weather any storm. And the character of Ehrenreich, who is always conscious of the way the system is taking advantage of the workers, often makes the poor stiffs around her look painfully foolish. We simply don't get enough information about any of the working-class characters to make them more than types. And so the waitress and the maid and the salesgirl become nothing more than pawns in service of the play's political message, much in the same way that they are pawns in the draconian economic policies of corporate America.

Still, the play does a good job at reminding a mostly middle-to-upper-middle-class audience of what is too easy to overlook in America today: that our dirt-cheap clothes and spanking-clean houses come at a price. We are living on the backs of the less fortunate, and if we keep this up, our culture eventually will pay in ways that none of us can imagine.

Suspenseful Case

Summer has come to the Alley a few weeks early, with the recent production of Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution. The old-fashioned whodunit yarn is the sort usually reserved for the company's Summer Chills season. But this show has such a big cast (an entire courtroom appears in the second act) and such a supremely clever ending, director Gregory Boyd decided to cap off the 2005-2006 season with it. Even a last-minute cast change due to illness couldn't undermine the frothy fun to be had in this production of what may be Christie's best thriller.

The story starts out in the chambers of Sir Wilfrid Robarts (James Belcher), where a suspect is about to plead his case to a fancy English lawyer. Leonard Vole (Mark Shanahan) has been accused of befriending, then murdering, a wealthy middle-aged woman for her money. Of course, Vole, who is as good-looking as he is charming, says he didn't do it. Never mind that the loyal maid (Bettye Fitzpatrick) saw him speaking to the victim just minutes before she was killed, or that Vole just happened to be written into the woman's will -- as her sole benefactor. And forget the fact that he never bothered to tell the woman he was married. Vole is just so darned attractive and so sweetly earnest in his claims of innocence. He's enough to make shop girls swoon -- just look at Robarts's girlish secretary (Elizabeth Bunch) batting her eyes at Vole in the corner. Once Robarts agrees to accept the case, the show is off and running.

Act II opens with designer Hugh Landwehr's gorgeously dramatic set change. The lawyer's chambers disappear upstage, and an entire courtroom slides in from the wings, then folds forward like a pair of enormous arms. It's a breathtaking preview to a wonderfully charged courtroom scene that ends with the kind of suspense that usually happens only in the movies anymore. We hear the maid's accusations, listen to Vole's shadowy wife (Elizabeth Heflin) as she testifies and watch Belcher's Robarts battle it out with Jeffery Bean's Mr. Myers, the prosecuting attorney. It's enough to pull grown theatergoers to the edges of their seats.

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