When young Polish immigrant Wanda Petronski tells her classmates that she has 100 dresses in her closet, all lined up, they laugh at her. After all, Wanda wears the same plain dress every day.
Desperate to fit in, Wanda describes a different dress before school each morning, but the other girls continue to make fun of her. Except for Maddie. She does nothing — and that is the problem.
Lexington Children's Theatre's latest production, The Hundred Dresses, deftly confronts the subject of bullying and fitting in, something that is as relevant today as the 1938 Depression-era setting of the play, adapted by Kentucky native Mary Hall Surface from the book by Eleanor Estes.
A tender, engrossing production with impressively sharp, spirited acting by a cast of young people, The Hundred Dresses is not just about how picking on others for being different is wrong, it's about how keeping silent is, as Maddie says, "even worse."
Watching young actress Lucy Bacon as Maddie is one of the play's highlights. Her insecurity as her family's financial struggles are pitted against her solid social standing as the best friend of Peggy, the rich, popular girl, is palpable and stirring. She owns more than one dress, but not that many, and as the Depression's skewed economic inequality infects the town, derision and divisions among the children only increase.
The play's emotional arc is largely tethered to the seesaw of Maddie's conscience. The young actress deserves praise for eliciting convincing empathy as she vacillates from wanting to stand up for Wanda and wanting to avoid exposure of her own descent into near-poverty.
Fifth-grader Helena Shatzki delivers a vivid and mature performance as Peggy, the spoiled rich girl who dominates her peers and picks on Wanda. While Helena's Peggy necessarily lacks the emotional anguish that Maddie does, she seems to grasp that Peggy's flippantly callous behavior is motivated more by the insipid ignorance of the overly sheltered than genuine malice.
And then of course, there is Wanda, played by seventh-grader Emma Massa. A poor immigrant with a talent for drawing and music, Wanda is portrayed as a kind of ghostly figure, even though she is very much a real girl. But her struggle with English and her social place as an outsider make her painfully invisible to her potential friends. I am no expert on Polish accents, but I was genuinely impressed by Emma's consistently rendered accent and her heart-wrenching combination of vulnerability and hope.
Lucy, Helena and Emma and a handful of other children in supporting roles demonstrate an ease and enthusiasm on the stage. With only three adult actors, each of whom plays relatively minor roles, The Hundred Dresses leans on the student actors more than most. The young ensemble proves up to the task.
It's clear that director Amie E. Dunn Kisling has facilitated a genuine connection between the material and the young cast. That connection refreshingly translates to the audience.
IF YOU GO
'The Hundred Dresses'
What: Lexington Children's Theatre's production of a play by Mary Hall Surface, adapted from the book by Eleanor Estes. Recommended for ages 7 and older.
When: 2 p.m. April 28
Where: LCT, 418 W. Short St.
Tickets: $17 adults, $14 children; available at (859) 254-4546, Ext. 247, or Lctonstage.org.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer.