Arts & Culture

OFT play brings to life classic children’s story of bullies and bystanders

Wanda (Abigail Hamilton) reads to her class in Olympia Family Theater’s “The Hundred Dresses.”
Wanda (Abigail Hamilton) reads to her class in Olympia Family Theater’s “The Hundred Dresses.” Courtesy of Olympia Family Theater

Olympia Family Theater’s “The Hundred Dresses,” opening Friday, is a perennially popular story of bullies and bystanders, based on the Newbery Honor-winning 1944 novella by Eleanor Estes.

With a cast of mostly young actors, “Dresses” tells a simple story that addresses complex issues, including poverty and the treatment of immigrants.

“Unfortunately, it’s a timeless tale, especially with some of the things we’re seeing right now around immigrants,” director Samantha Chandler told The Olympian. “It felt like an important thing to talk about.”

The action focuses on Maddie (Simone Meade, 11, a sixth-grader at Olympia’s Jefferson Middle School), who stands by as classmates tease a new girl, Polish immigrant Wanda (Abigail Hamilton, 13 and home-schooled), who wears the same faded dress each day, yet insists she has 100 dresses at home.

She does, it turns out, and there’s a reason she’s not wearing them.

While we won’t reveal that reason here, chances are good those reading this are familiar with the story, set during the Great Depression. In 2007, the National Education Association included “Dresses” among its top 100 books for children.

“ ‘The Hundred Dresses,’ even after 70-plus years, continues to speak to children.” Melissa Fox wrote in a 2007 review for thoughtco.com. “Everyone will find something in Estes’ message of kindness and compassion.”

Chandler, who co-founded the theater with artistic director Jen Ryle, is confident of the appeal of Olympia Family Theater’s production, adapted by Mary Hall Surface.

“It’s such a great script and story,” she said. “This is one of the strongest casts of kids I’ve worked with as a whole. They have great instincts, and they bring a lot of insight and emotion to the roles.”

Olympia Family Theater regulars might recognize Simone, who played Roo in 2017’s “Winnie the Pooh,” and adult actors Mike Gregory, who played Winnie the Pooh, and Rebecca Rogers, who puppeteered the fish in 2017’s “Cat in the Hat.” Also in the cast are well-known actors Debe Edden and Keith Eisner.

The set, designed by Jill Carter, keeps something of the feel of the book’s distinctive watercolor illustrations while brightening the color palette, Chandler said. One key scene also features watercolor-and-pencil illustrations by Donna Myers.

Most of the play’s costumes — including many dresses — were handmade by Bonnie Chandler-Warren (the director’s mother) and Mary Rathke.

The young actresses have been enjoying dressing as girls did in the 1930s, Chandler said.

“Girls don’t wear dresses very often,” she said. “It’s been fun to watch them enjoy that experience. It’s like playing dress-up.”

‘The Hundred Dresses’

  • What: Olympia Family Theater presents Mary Hall Surface’s adaptation of Eleanor Estes’ 1944 “The Hundred Dresses,” about a young Polish immigrant and her classmates — those who bully her and those who stand by and let it happen.
  • When: 7 p.m. Friday plus March 21, 22, 28 and 29 and 2 p.m. March 16, 17, 23, 24, 30 and 31
  • Where: Olympia Family Theater, 612 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia
  • Tickets: $15-$20; for the March 21 performance, pay what you can.
  • More information: 360-570-1638, olyft.org
  • Age: The play is suggested for ages 7 and older.
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