“The Hundred Dresses” resonates with audiences young and old
“Being afraid makes things worse,” Miss Mason (Sheri Williams Pannell) tells her class in The Hundred Dresses, which First Stage opened Friday.
The play, set in rural Connecticut in 1938, turns on a 10-year-old girl’s courage — or lack of it.
This small drama plays out in a context of fear: of personal failure, economic depression, immigrant issues, the psychological toll of unemployment. Amid scenic designer Steve Barnes’ pastoral setting, Maddie (Emily Newmark) and her best friend, the upper-class Peggy (Kendal Briscoe), address these troubling issues in their own little town. Maddie wears second-hand dresses and hopes for steady work for her father. She, like Wanda, faces some taunting for being the poor girl. Peggy, meanwhile, models new dresses and teases Wanda Petrowski (Katherine Pollnow) — especially over the 100 dresses claim. (The famed 100 dresses are revealed in a surprising way to close the first act.)
This complex play weaves a number of subplots. They involve the reclusive Mr. Svenson (Bo Johnson) and his “killer cat,” who live on a haunted hill outside town; a school contest for the best motorboat design (for the boys) and best dress design (for the girls); a stolen straw hat; and Maddie’s mother’s (Mary McDonald Kerr) attempt to update her daughter’s wardrobe by sewing on new trim.
The action builds slowly through multiple scene changes, as all the plot lines intersect to reveal a simple moral about the consequences of being unkind to people who are different. The repentant Maddie discovers how to take personal responsibility and stand up to the bad behavior of those around her.
Newmark and Briscoe, as Maddie and Peggy, are charming in complex character studies that require close attention to detail, under director John Maclay’s steady and sure pacing. The modest production focuses on acting and character. Its gratifying concepts enliven the stage and draw parallels to contemporary times — we still need to conquer fear. Children will learn — and adults will be reminded — that words do indeed hurt and can change lives. You’ll have something to talk about on the way home from The Hundred Dresses.
Two child casts will alternate as First Stage Children’s Theater presents The Hundred Dresses through April 17. Call 414 273-7206, 888 612-3500 or visit the First Stage website.