Theater

'Hundred Dresses': A Tormenter's Hair Shirt

By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Nothing peps up a moral teaching like a judicious sprinkling of history.

That's the take-home lesson from Imagination Stage's intelligent new offering, "The Hundred Dresses," which serves a generous portion of ethical edification.

During the Great Depression, an episode of schoolyard callousness shows the play's 10-year-old heroine, Maddie, that it is bad to be mean. If that sounds tediously homiletic, know that director-adapter Mary Hall Surface has flavored the story with a beguiling amount of period color.

Visual references to newsreels and 1930s comic books; a cameo by trench coat-clad reporters straight out of "The Front Page"; dialogue and staging that alludes to radio ventriloquist Edgar Bergen -- those little touches will buoy adult audience members while the kiddies absorb some tips on upright conduct.

Based on the 1944 novel by Eleanor Estes, "The Hundred Dresses" works a variation on the classic theme of outsider/insider conflict. The well-intentioned but inconsiderate Maddie (Sarah Fischer) falls in with a crowd of children who amuse themselves by mocking their small town's less popular residents. "I lit out of there faster than you can say Dick Tracy," brags one showoff (Kyle Magley), recounting how he sabotaged an outcast's rocking chair.

Most significant, Maddie allows her perky best friend, Peggy (Sarah Ellis), to taunt their classmate Wanda (Bette Cassatt), a shy Polish immigrant who claims to own 100 dresses, although she wears the same one every day. When Wanda moves away, leaving behind startling evidence of the hundred frocks, Maddie suffers pangs of remorse -- and learns that she should be a more compassionate, empathetic girl.

In this world premiere, the adult actors who play Maddie and her peers have preteen mannerisms down pat, racing about or slumping sulkily, the way 10-year-olds would.

Letting clouds of insecurity, enthusiasm and mopishness drift across her face, Fischer conveys the arc of Maddie's emotional journey. Ellis provides a nice contrast with her smug Peggy, and Cassatt succeeds in being all knees and elbows as the wan, awkward Wanda. On the other side of the gender gap, Michael Propster gives an enjoyably wild-eyed rendition of Jack, a comics nerd. And Donise Stevens and Lisa Lias serve up some adult gravitas as Maddie's teacher and mother.

The cast benefits from the artfulness of the show's designers, who root the tale in an intriguingly stylized version of Depression-era America. Tony Cisek's stark set, consisting largely of drab wooden cottage exteriors, emphasizes the story's bleak economic undercurrents. At the same time, a hint of ghost-town loneliness about the facades complements Kevin Hill's spooky sound design, which fuses the noises of whistling wind and creaking boards with wistful flute and piano tracks. Costume designer Kathleen Geldard adds another dollop of ambiance with the period attire, including the schoolgirls' dresses and colorful cardigans.

The director capitalizes on those production values in several wry scenes that hint at Maddie's overheated imagination. At one point, the girl fantasizes that she's a Nancy Drew-type sleuth, to the accompaniment of brassy music that evokes a pulp-fiction radio serial. At another, she pictures herself the star of a newsreel, as flickering movie-projector beams gutter over her (Dan Covey is the able lighting designer).

Those clever sequences, rich in atmosphere, drive home the poignancy of Maddie's situation: She has a life-is-a-bowl-of-cherries outlook in a brother-can-you-spare-a-dime world.

The Hundred Dresses, adapted and directed by Mary Hall Surface from the book by Eleanor Estes. With Terence Heffernan and Patricia Hurley. About 90 minutes. Through June 11 at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. Call 301-280-1660 or visit http://www.imaginationstage.org .

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