Reviewed by Kathleen Kirby
With the issue of bullying so much in the news these days, Flint Youth Theatre’s season opener offers a sort of historical primer on the subject. The Hundred Dresses is Mary Hall Surface’s stage adaptation of the 1944 Newbery Honor Book by Eleanor Estes. It tells a gentle story that packs a powerful message about the personal impact bullying can have on both the bully and the victim.
Director Jeremy Winchester’s cast of youngsters handles both the vintage nature of the story (set in 1938) and the innocently hurtful actions of the children with complete believability. The story moves fluidly and with a refreshing honesty unburdened by too many technical trappings.
We meet the children living through the Great Depression. Most of the families are struggling but the arrival of Wanda (Sam Carter), a European immigrant, in their class offers them someone even worse off to tease. Told mostly from the point of view of Maddie (Danielle Szabo), we feel her reluctance as her friend Peggy (Layla Meillier) assumes she can have “fun” with this strange talking newcomer. When Wanda senses that dresses are important and tries to befriend Peggy by telling her that she has a hundred of them, Peggy’s “joking” takes on systematic proportions that ends with Wanda’s family moving away.
Although Maddie is careful not to tease Wanda, she nevertheless does nothing to deter Peggy and the others. Both Szabo and Meillier are wonderfully true to these characters. Their friend Cecile (Kathryn Spademan) completes the trio and the taunting as she brags about having an outfit that must surely be from Paris.
Through it all, Carter brings a poignancy and truth to this young immigrant. Her guileless intensity and carefully accented speech are totally convincing. We are never sorry for her as the victim; if anything she is a hero.
The boys played by Christion Hiler (Jack) and Enrique J. Vargas (Willie) are typical boys, but still scrappy and mischievous. They have little to do with Wanda’s brother Jacob (Caleb Vigil) who is praised for his voluntary daily cleaning of the school floors, but their obsession with the old man on the hill, Mr. Svenson (Rodney Creech), illustrates how fear can lead youngsters to cruel actions in order to test their own courage.
Maddie ultimately realizes that fear has made her weak and that standing up for what she believes is right may be difficult, but that it will give her some relief from her feelings of guilt about their treatment of Wanda.
The play has both real and dream-like moments that are handled nicely with lighting and characterization. Szabo is constantly in and out of these states, first voicing her thoughts and then entering into her own imagination. Still, we were able to follow her as she worked her way to the realization that, as much as we may want to, we can’t always make things right.
This is a worthy and uplifting production starring a talented group of youngsters in the leading roles. With the adults only appearing sparingly, it is able to convey an important message directly from and to young people.
The Hundred Dresses will continue at Elgood Theater through November 4. For tickets and more information call 810-237-1530 or find them online at FlintYouthTheatre.org