Can a middle-aged, middle-class woman survive, when she suddenly has to make beds all day in a hotel and live on $7 an hour? Maybe. But one $7-an-hour job won’t pay the rent: she’ll have to do back-to-back shifts, as a chambermaid and a waitress. This isn’t the first surprise for acclaimed author Barbara Ehrenreich, who set out to research low-wage life firsthand, confident she was prepared for the worst. Ehrenreich’s best-seller about her odyssey is vivid and witty, yet always deeply sobering. Joan Holden’s stage adaptation is a focused comic epic shadowed with tragedy. Barbara is prepared for hard work but not, at age 55, for double shifts and nonstop aches and pains; for having to share tiny rooms, live on fast food because she has no place to cook, beg from food pantries, gulp handfuls of Ibuprofen because she can’t afford a doctor; for failing, after all that, to make ends meet; or for constantly having to swallow humiliation. The worst, she learns, is not what happens to the back or the knees: it’s the damage to the heart. The bright glimpses of Barbara’s co-workers that enliven the book become indelible portraits: Gail, the star waitress pushing 50 who can no longer outrun her troubles; Carlie, the hotel maid whose rage has burned down to disgust; Pete, the nursing home cook who retreats into fantasy; Holly, terrified her pregnancy will end her job as Team Leader at Magic Maids, and with it her $0.50 raise. These characters endure their life struggles with a gallantry that humbles Barbara, and the audience. The play shows us the life one-third of working Americans now lead, and makes us angry that anyone should have to live it.
Included in Broadway Book Club's Banned Books Specialty Collection