Jeff Fishkin's first week at Red Hill School isn't a very good one.
He gets picked on. Other students make fun of his name and call him "fish face." He takes a wrong turn and ends up in the girl's bathroom. And worst of all, the one boy he tried to befriend turns out to be a bully, threatening to spit on him unless Jeff gives him a dollar.
But is Jeff's bully, Bradley Chalkers, really as villainous as he acts?
Lexington Children's Theatre's latest production, There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom, sheds insight into why Bradley, like so many other bullies, behaves the way he does.
The production is part of Dramatic Change: An Anti-Bullying Initiative, a joint campaign launched by the Theatre for Young Audiences and American Alliance for Theatre and Education.
Jeremy Kisling shares how a personal experience with childhood bullying influenced him while directing the play, adapted by the books' author, Louis Sachar. A neighbor boy once shoved a young Kisling's face in the snow until Kisling declared the boy "the king of the neighborhood."
"I was so mad at him!" Kisling writes in the program notes, "but today in hindsight, I realize he was jealous."
Jealousy and low self-esteem are a couple of the traits that motivate the Bradley Chalkers of the world, something that the school's unappreciated school counselor Carla Davis (Brianna Case) helps everyone to understand.
Many of the show's roles, which stars more young people than adult actors, are double-cast. But Shelby M. Nance, an eighth-grade drama major at the School for the Creative and Performing Arts, plays the misbehaving Bradley in each performance.
Shelby seems at home on the stage, has terrific charisma, and most important, strikes an understanding balance between Bradley's truly atrocious behavior and his emotional insecurity with humor.
Despite the serious message of the play, its light-hearted warmth effectively drives the message home. Case's performance as the idealistic counselor who sees the good in everyone is a terrific example. Upbeat, cheerful and kind, her character cultivates real change in Bradley, who starts wearing a tie and doing his homework.
A chorus of stuffed animals that come to life in Bradley's bedroom also garners plenty of chuckles. Frances Werner-Wilson, Marlowe Toney, Courtney Waltermire and Carlos Leon inject colorful humor with their puppetry, and Eric Abele's costume designs whimsically punctate their characters.
Cavan Hendron, a Bryan Station Middle School student, gets a few laughs of his own as the new kid Jeff Fishkin, whom he plays with a perfect mix of shyness and eagerness as he tries to make friends and fit into his new school.
Seventh-grader Catherine Van Tatenhove and eighth-grader Abby Hayden also turn in spirited performances as Colleen, a shy girl who has a crush on Jeff and her overly assertive friend Melinda, who is responsible for delivering not one but two blackeyes.
Perhaps what's most remarkable about There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom is that it both educates and entertains, tackling the bully dilemma in a positive, constructive and thought-provoking way.