Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The Hundred Dresses
Also see Richard's review of Classic Mystery Game
And those very current political themes may only be discernible by adults in the new staging of The Hundred Dresses for kids by the Metro Theater Company. William Kent Williams' 1998 adaption for the stage is still the touching story of an outsider girl and how other kids respond to her in a public school in Connecticut some 100 years ago. Still, under the direction of Julia Flood, the political climate outside the theater manages to seep in. The Metro Theater website also includes a fascinating graphic called "The Triangle of Oppression," which shows the behaviors people often adopt when confronted with bullying, as part of a teaching guide, which might also come in handy in the study of current events.
The grown-up Maddie (played by Alicia Revé Like), now a kindly elementary school teacher herself, narrates the story of being a little girl in the same room where all this took place, when she was small. She still remembers her own teacher, Mr. Mason (Phillip C. Dixon), and her classmates, conjuring them onto the stage in this 70 or 75-minute play. They are played by adults, but the actors' performances are nicely childlike, in understated ways.
But, to get back to those hot-button issues, Wanda (Sophie Murk) is a Polish-American kid in the days when there was a flood of immigrants pouring through Ellis Island, and she and her family now live on the poor side of town, in Boggins Heights. Except that she and Maddie both go to school where the kids are of more moderate means, including boy's boy Tommy, played by Jacob Cange, and Peggy, played with calculated charm and steady nuance by Hailey Medrano. It's all from a more innocent time, set in the novelist's home state of Connecticut.
Ms. Medrano, as Peggy, generates a feeling of narcissism through a heightened physical elegance and regular displays of the character's own high opinion of herself. What's so insidious, though, in the realm of authoritarianism, is how she forces her views (of foreign-born Wanda) on the other kids, to destroy another child's own identity. Tommy and Maddie don't take part in the "othering" of Wanda, but their fear of Peggy does plenty of damage, as they quietly distance themselves from the Polish-American girl, lest they feel Peggy's controlling wrath.
Yes, it is a children's play. But The Hundred Dresses contains all the elements, in story and characterization, of a more ambitious story, regardless of the politics. The children's teacher, Mr. Mason, is gentle and jovial, but late in the action he takes a long time before explaining why Wanda has suddenly disappeared, after months of bullying. In itself, that suspenseful delay is halfway as harrowing as anything in The Pillowman. The children's visits to Boggins Heights are both sad and transformative. And the ending, where a childish lie is turned into a glorious truth, is uplifting and poetic.
The Hundred Dresses, through February 25, 2019, at the Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square, St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.metroplays.org.
The Cast (in alphabetical order):