The Flunking of Joshua T. Bates, Griffin Theatre Company. Unlike most Chicago companies, Griffin treats children’s theater primarily as a vehicle for instruction. And in sharp contrast to the company’s generally gaudy, vibrant adult productions, Griffin’s children’s shows are uniformly sparse, keeping props and costumes to a minimum, so the burden of bringing the characters’ hopes and anxieties to life falls on the actors. The productions are sometimes hampered by their lack of technical support, but generally they succeed in their educational aims because William Massolia’s skeletal adaptations are usually organized around a unifying moral.

But that’s not entirely true of his stage version of Susan Shreve’s novel The Flunking of Joshua T. Bates, about an impressionable nine-year-old forced to repeat the third grade: this show lacks focus, and its messages are mixed. Not only does the pat ending sap the strength of the play’s generally empowering theme, but questions about the appropriateness of the youngster’s intimate relationship with his teacher–an incredibly sensitive subject today–are never raised.

The performances (especially Teri Marinkovich as a precocious kid sister and Eric Roach and Mark Schab as a pair of overgrown bullies) are uniformly strong, and director Rick Barletta keeps the energy up by having the actors chant playground rhymes during scene changes and blackouts, though he doesn’t take a lot of chances. The problems stem mainly from the script, which doesn’t equal the production.

–Nick Green