WAYNESBURG – There will always be bullies. It is a fact of life that most people experience in one form or another over their lifetime. During rehearsals for “The 100 Dresses,” the fall production of the Waynesburg Central High School drama club, the actors and actresses saw the act of bullying from a whole new perspective.
“The 100 Dresses,” written by Eleanor Estes, has never been out of print since it won the Newberry Award in 1945. It is the timeless story in its pages that has kept it so.
Although the tale takes place in the era of World War I, the interactions among the characters could easily take place today.
“There are always going to be mean girls,” said Claire Kreider, who plays the role of Peggy in the play. Peggy exemplifies the mean girl spirit. When a new girl moves to the school Peggy attends, she and her friends are not welcoming, aside from the welcome forced in the classroom by their teacher.
Kreider found irony in playing the role of Peggy. It was she who was the new girl some eight years ago when her family moved from the state of California to live in Greene County. She experienced some of what the lead character in the play, Wanda Petronski, did. Petronski, played by Mackenzie Robinson, is fresh off of the boat from Poland and still struggling with the pronunciation of some words. When she stands to read in broken English they laugh at her attempt. Wanda sits off to the side at recess, all alone. She is a bright and artistic little girl. Her classmates are unaware of either of those traits.
What the children do take notice of is the fact that Wanda wears the same blue dress to school each day. It is clean, most likely washed by Wanda herself each night, but nonetheless a target for her classmates who have many outfits. When Wanda enters a conversation about one girl’s new dress, stating she has 100 dresses at home, the bullying begins with a vengeance. Every day the girls, led by Peggy and with Maddie standing in quiet support, taunt Wanda about the number of dresses and also shoes she has at home.
“People tell you it will be fine,” Kreider said, noting how easy it is to single someone out who is different and to use those differences against them.
For Gabrielle Ross, who plays Peggy’s best friend, Maddie, the role was fraught with conflict. Maddie comes from a poor family, like Wanda. However, we learn that Maddie’s family at some point moves from the area where Wanda lives into the town. She has to wear hand-me-down clothes but manages to not become the subject of ridicule for it. When Peggy starts to tease Wanda, Maddie chooses to remain mostly silent so she will not incite the same type of torture.
In a scene where several of the players are taunting Wanda in a sing-song manner, poking at her and laughing, the tension builds on the stage.
“They were physically and emotionally exhausted each time we would rehearse this scene,” said director Doug Bland.
Bland said the cast had a very hard time taking part in the attack, even though it wasn’t real.
Ross said she considers Maddie to be a bystander.
“Maddie accesses the situation and tries to figure out what is right and what is wrong,” she said. “I’ve had my times when I just stood there and it’s really hard to say at times I was the bully. Maddie feels way more guilty for doing nothing than for actually bullying.”
When Wanda suddenly leaves the school and moves away, her classmates are left to wonder what happened. It is several days before they even realize she is gone. And what happens next affects them all, especially Peggy and Maddie, who trek to the ‘other’ side of town to make amends,unaware that Wanda and her father have already moved. They encounter the character of Mr. Svenson, played by Braxton McCollum.
It is McCollum who utters the lines that torture Maddie.
“Sometimes doing nothing is the worst betrayal of all,” McCollum said. “‘Nothing’ is the Devil’s middle name.”
Bland said he chose the production at this time because it coincides with bullying month in the school district. A fifth-grade teacher in the elementary school, Bland thought it was a perfect way to present the subject matter of bullying in a real-time format that allows the students to see its effects. It will be performed for the public at the Waynesburg Central High School auditorium at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Cost of admission is $8 for adults and $3 for children.
The program will be offered to the 900 students and faculty Monday.