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Classroom conformity, circa 1938 and 2010, rears its ugly head in Raleigh Little Theatre's youth-theater production of The Hundred Dresses, which completes its three-week run March 18-21 and 25-28 in RLT's Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre. Mary Hall Surface's 2008 dramatization of Eleanor Estes' 1944 Newbery Honor Book has important lessons to teach, and the inexperienced but well-rehearsed RLT cast and director Linda O'Day Young communicate them very well indeed.
The book and play's central character and victim of cruel classroom bullies is a tall, quiet, shy Polish immigrant girl named Wanda Petronski (Maddy Kunkel), who shares a rundown little house in Boggins Heights — which is on the wrong side of the tracks — with her father Jan (Michael McGee) and brother Jacob (Cameron Newton). She wears the same shabby faded-blue dress to school day after day. Then one day, while her classmates are discussing a striking new dress worn to school that day by one of the girls, Wanda blurts out, "I have a hundred dresses at home." Thereafter, she is teased unmercifully by her peers for making such an improbable claim when she wears the evidence of her family's poverty to class every day.
Ringleaders in ridiculing Wanda are middle-class girl Madeleine "Maddie" Reeves (Hannah Hoskins) and her rich best friend Peggy Thomas (Ellie Dusek). But when Maddie eventually has a change of heart, it is too late: the Petronskis have moved away. So, when startling evidence surfaces that proves the truth of Wanda's seemingly preposterous claim about the "hundred dresses," it is too late to apologize face to face.
Raleigh Little Theatre youth theater and education director Linda O'Day Young sets a brisk pace for the youthful performers, many of whom must double as stagehands and change the scenery in a series of brief scenes set in and around New Haven, CT, in 1938. The 1938 newsreel montage that provides a prologue for the play's events and the video of Maddie's fantasy interlude, produced by Rod and Nancy Rich, are especially nice touches.
Maddy Kunkel gives Wanda Petronski a quiet dignity, Hannah Hoskins makes palpable Maddie Reeves' remorse for helping ostracize Wanda, and Ellie Dusek makes the stuck-up Peggy Thomas a real pill. Henry Hopson and Ben Mygatt are a cute pair of classroom cutups as Willie Bounce and Jack Beggles, respectively; Kathleen Rudolph and Jerry Zieman add crisp cameos as Maddie's supportive mother Shelly Reeves and old Mr. Svenson, on whom Willie and Jack play a mean trick; and Lauren T. Simmons cuts a fine figure as stylishly dressed but silly Cecile Allen. Also effective are Michael McGee as Wanda Petronski's concerned father Jan and Cameron Newton as her belligerent brother Jacob.
The storybook sets and the versatile lighting design by Rick Young and the colorful 1938 fashions by Jenny Butler add an air of authenticity to The Hundred Dresses and the timeless lesson that it teaches about classroom conformity and the courage that it takes to stand up and oppose it.
The Hundred Dresses runs through March 28th in Raleigh Little Theatre's Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre. For details, see our theater calendar.
*Note: For a letter to the editor concerning this review, click here.