The Hundred Dresses: Quality on Display at Beaverton Civic Theatre
By James Van Eaton
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.”
Now, “evil” in this case may be switched for something less melodramatic, like antipathy or simple meanness, and “men” might trade for “young woman” but overall the theme remains the same, and features prominently in Beaverton Civic Theatre’s latest period piece, The Hundred Dresses.
The story here is straightforward and familiar in terms of structure, and revolves around the lonely, threadbare shadow of a girl in 1938 New England called Wanda Petronski, who is alternately ignored for her lack of social surety and openly mocked for her country of origin and difficult-to-pronounce surname. Beneath their teacher’s largely indifferent and sometimes contemptuous watch, the children of room 13, led by officious Peggy Thomas, make a game of harassing Wanda following her claims of having one hundred dresses at home despite only ever wearing one.
This game, and the subsequent, adjacent behavior from her friends and classmates, stir in young Madeline Reeves a feeling of uncertainty which turns to anxiety and finally to something near anguish when the children’s continued bullying behavior begins to cause visible harm. It is Madeline’s journey of emotional awakening that propels the story on, and actress Isabella Villagomez illustrates that that journey with near perfection. Her Madeline is quietly enthralling, the perfect study of a fundamentally good person whose call to self-action begins as a whisper but refuses to soften. Villagomez makes grand use of faltering smiles and distracted looks and her steady climb to empathy is readily apparent in her every action.
Beside her is Annika Sadowski, who plays Wanda with such waifish longing and humanity that it’s nearly impossible to see her as an actress and not some traveler from another time and place inserted into a fiction matching her own real-life experience. Wanda is forever placed at the fading edge of light, a wraith in the shadows of the stage whose heartbreak captivates with faultless purpose and deliberate bearing.
No less dedicated is Summer Schroeder as teasing ringleader Peggy Thomas, wielding a cruelty that is, above all, chillingly normal. Peggy’s cheerful taunts and challenges, heightened by Schroeder’s natural charisma, make her a friend not to be lost, or more precisely, an enemy not to be gained, and Madeline’s hesitant detachment from her thrall is all the more believable in the face of the Schroeder’s sunny confidence and carefree manner. Schroeder avoids the trap of making Peggy a villain and instead embodies the hero of her character’s own misguided mindset, with all the conviction and ceremony such a role requires.
Les Ico, Nic Gantzer, and Gracie Morinishi play the remainder of the classroom 13 adolescents, and bring to their roles the bright and folksy sheen of childhood. All three inhabit their characters like a beloved set of clothes, and their rambunctious, fascinated, or steadfast portrayals well establish an adventurous, exciting word of privilege where concepts such as bullying and neglect cannot seem to exist, (an important distinction for both setting and story.) Ico and Gantzer, as adults playing children, do so with relish and without any sense of pandering, and the chemistry of all the classroom children is note-perfect.
Slightly less can be said for the script itself, which is certainly well-meaning and thematically important, but which constantly gets in its own way by marching those themes across the stage in enormous, bold-type letters. It starts out strong and ends the same, but pauses periodically midway to explain itself in the terms of a “kid’s show.” Luckily, all the actors (and Villagomez in particular) overcome these instances of stilted dialog with emotion and consistency aplenty to smooth the script’s rumpled sections.
Ted Schroeder’s role as Wanda’s beleaguered father Mr. Petronski is a fairly small one, but he shows it respect and reserve. Likewise, Wanda’s brother Jacob is played with genuinely moving protectiveness by Nicki LeGore. Stacie Looney commands authority as the children’s self-satisfied teacher Miss Mason, and Hannah Greenlee plays Madeline’s mother Shelley Reeves with distracted concern, yearning for her mostly absent husband while trying to understand the changes in her daughter’s life. Finally, there’s Charles “Chuck” Wilson, whose infamously reclusive Mr. Svenson not only parallels the impoverished plight of the Petronski family, but presents a surprisingly effective moment of shared sorrow and introspection with Madeline.
The ideological evolution of Madeline Reeves plays out both literally and figuratively before a backdrop that’s Norman Rockwell meets Grandma Moses with just a dash of Charlie Brown. It is a stage of roving spotlights and fades, of dream-like hues and lush, vintage-magazine clothing where the optimistic trappings of town, hill, and home, and the people who dwell there are brought to dazzling life though gorgeous set design and expert costuming. Highest compliments to all involved on those fronts. In this show, the veneer of “normal” is of chief importance, and it was all very clearly lovingly done.
The Hundred Dresses employs youthful characters as carriers of a message, but it is not strictly speaking a “children’s show.” Certainly no more than To Kill a Mockingbird or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And though it does occasionally mire in over-simplified talk, and very occasionally treats affection as something nearing perfunctory, the vast majority of its world is deep, meaningful, and captivating. It is a piece to be experienced and discussed by people of any age as its themes, more often than not, persist far beyond that span called childhood. As a whole, The Hundred Dresses is an impressive feat of acting, character chemistry, stage pictures, and lighting. Director Sarah Ominski and her crew should be extremely proud of their vision come to life, and it's one that all theater-goers should be excited to share.