Like "Huckleberry Finn," "Moby Dick" and many other literary classics, "The Secret Garden" by Frances Hodgson Burnett tends to make better reading than it does theater. Especially theater for children.

To begin with, there's a "talky" quality to the story - sentences filled with dialect and regionalisms from all over Britain - that taxes a young person's concentration.What's more, as the plot develops we soon see that the heart of every character is basically in the right place. What little dramatic tension there is tends to come from misunderstanding and pure cussedness. There's no real villain to confront here - no Captain Hook, Queen of Hearts or Wicked Witch to stir the action and raise the dramatic temperature to a level kids both crave and enjoy.

That said - that "The Secret Garden" is basically a flawed piece of theater to begin with - one has to admire the way City Rep makes the best out of a bad situation by bringing eeriness, authentic English manners and a gauzy fairytale quality into high relief.

At the core of the story is Mary Lennox (Ginger Bunnell here). She's an angry young orphan who has been traumatized by the cholera epidemic in India that took her family, and she's come to live on the the estate of her uncle, Archibald Craven (Kris Johnson).

Her lot throughout the play is basically the lot of Heidi and Polyanna: to eventually bring new life and a sense of joy to people who have become wasted and worn down by grief, fear and silly convention.

Her first real conquest is ratty old Ben Weatherstaff, played in a non-threatening crotchety mode by Gordon Johnson. After that, good-hearted Dickon (Nigel James), Martha (Debi Martin) and even unhappy, hysterical Colin Craven (Jared Christensen) are charmed back to life by her vitality.

The performance of Bunnell as Mary tends to spike high and low. Some of the time we sense a real girlish whimsy come over her, nicely laid over a brooding, uneasy soul hiding deeper within.

At other times Bunnell flips from hot (temper tantrums and brattiness) to a cool, surface happiness so quickly that the audience is left feeling the poor girl is not so much confused by life as chemically unbalanced.

Colin suffers from much of the same problem. His transformations come so quickly and unexpectedly that one feels entire scenes have been cut from the work to keep things moving. The result is an impression of psychosis and too much sugar intake more than anything else.

Dorothy Snelson offers a convincing, bitter Mrs. Medlock. The night I was there, Reuben Fox served well as Doctor Craven, and Kris Johnson was solid as Uncle Craven.

A flashback scene to the cholera epidemic is a little confusing - though wonderfully haunted. And the staging itself - with most of the scenes being played out on the wings - is a bit more awkward than need be and tends to make two-thirds of the audience strain to hear lines that are tough to understand to begin with.

As I said earlier, Thomas W. Olson's script struggles bravely with this quiet, literary work. And Joanne M. Parker makes a gallant effort at pumping up interest by highlighting the textures of the story rather than the Victorian, stiff-upper-lip manners.