- The Washington Times - Monday, May 15, 2006

“The Hundred Dresses” could use some altering. This Depression-era tale about a child developing a conscience is muted and melancholy and comes across as heavy-handed and didactic, especially in the second act.

Writer and director Mary Hall Surface adapted Eleanor Estes’ 1942 young adult novel to the stage, expanding the book to include a subplot concerning the heroine, Maddie (Sarah Fischer), getting a second chance to do the right thing. Her initial cowardice forms the crux of “The Hundred Dresses” when she joins in the teasing of Wanda Petronski (Bette Cassatt), a motherless Polish immigrant who wears the same pinafore every day but boasts of having 100 dresses in her closet at home.

Indulged rich girl Peggy (Sarah Ellis) takes fiendish delight in Wanda’s story, asking her to describe a different dress every morning before school. Peggy leads the other girls and boys in merciless mockery of Wanda, and although it makes Maddie — a poor child receiving food and hand-me-downs from the local church who clearly is having issues of her own — uncomfortable, she does nothing about it.

A school art competition reveals the true nature of Wanda’s dresses along with her abundant drawing talent, but it is too late. Wanda isn’t present to accept her award, and her father writes a note explaining that the family has moved to the big city where “no more holler Polack. No more ask why funny name.” Maddie, of course, deeply regrets her treatment of Wanda and wishes there were a way to make amends.

The book ends in a subdued crisis of conscience, as Maddie tries to get back to her carefree life but finds herself bumping “smack into the thought that she had made Wanda Petronski move away.” The themes of peer pressure, bullying and materialism are imparted tenderly in “The Hundred Dresses,” showing that Mean Girls are, by no means, a new phenomenon.

The play, however, has a protracted, limp second act in which Maddie gets to ease her guilt by intervening when her classmates plot to pull a nasty prank on a neighbor. She even gets to develop a weird, fantasy-cozy relationship with Wanda that unfolds in imagined play dates. Wanda has some passive-aggressive moments, too, as she writes a gushy and newsy letter to the class and bestows her prize drawings on Maddie and Peggy — the last thing a cruelly taunted child would do.

The play’s references to newsreels (Little Orphan Annie, Franklin Roosevelt, and Charlie McCarthy) probably will fly over the heads of most young audience members, although their grandparents may get a charge out of them. The cast, aside from Michael Propster as the gangly, perpetually in-motion Jack, seem more like teenagers than elementary schoolers, making their treatment of Wanda particularly odious. Miss Cassatt is a sweet, sad presence as Wanda, heartbreaking in her efforts to be accepted by her peers.

The padded and unnecessary second half of “The Hundred Dresses” detracts from the book’s message that sometimes children do nasty things to other children and that the act of forgiveness is often painful. The instinct to smooth things over and make it all hunky-dory does a disservice to both children and adults. Some life lessons don’t need to be taken with a spoonful of sugar.

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WHAT: “The Hundred Dresses,” written and directed by Mary Hall Surface

WHERE: Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda

WHEN: 3:30 and 7 p.m. Saturdays, 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. Sundays. Through June 11.

TICKETS: $10 to $15

PHONE: 301/280-1660

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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