note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
‘Educating Rita’ By Sheila Barth email@example.com When Willy Russell’s two-person, heartwarming comedy, “Educating Rita,” appeared initially on stage in 1980, audiences and critics were so charmed by its two antithetical characters, their symbiosis and evolution, it received the Olivier Award for Best Comedy. Shortly afterward, it was an internationally successful movie starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters.
Russell, who came from Liverpool, England, also penned the one-person play, “Shirley Valentine,” and the screenplay of “Blood Brothers,” among his many successes. “Rita” continues to strike a chord with audiences, perhaps because they share similar scholastic experiences today, as multi-age adults return to school in record numbers to improve their education and employment.
Many can remember an admired professor or teacher who was a frustrated writer and closet drinker - like seemingly dignified, jaded iconoclast, Frank, wonderfully portrayed by veteran actor Andrew Long. And in every class, there’s the bubbly enthusiastic female student who wants to learn everything - much like Susan, who calls herself Rita, a 26-year-old, married hairdresser, whom pretty Jane Pfitsch portrays with gusto. Dissatisfied with her lifestyle and seeking more, Rita enrolled in an open university, one-on-one course. From the moment she bursts through Frank’s office door, Rita hungrily attacks literary pieces with gusto.
Director Maria Aitken captures Frank and Rita’s symbiotic growth, enrichment, and victory over their stagnancy, from their volatile first meeting to their co- self-actualization, and their final get-together in Frank’s ivy-league office.
Long nimbly portrays this bored, self-deprecating savant, whose languid body language is belied by his dexterity to climb ladders and retrieve liquor bottles he categorically stashes behind stacks of literature. “There’s less of me than meets the eye,” he snorts.
To Frank, Rita is a breath of fresh air, her eagerness to learn and blue-collar honesty a joie de vivre. As he gleefully laughs at her simplistic responses to authors, such as E.M.Forster, she is self-conscious, convinced he’s making fun of her.
Rita’s battling another detractor - her uneducated husband, Denny, who wants to have a baby and is non-supportive of her scholastic aims.
The entire play is set in Frank’s office, (nicely designed by Allen Moyer), over a year. Joel Silver’s clever lighting; Seaghan McKay’s seasonal, day- and nighttime projections; John Gramada’s sound effects and musical interludes; and Nancy Brennan’s 1970‘s costumes, nicely depict the passage of time and Rita’s and Frank’s metamorphoses.
As Frank gingerly recedes from his dependence on Scotch and attempts to write poetry again, Rita moved out of her home, changed jobs, and mingles with younger day students, gaining confidence in her literary analyses - and herself. Her piled-up hair is unleashed, flowing down her back; her bright-colored mini skirts and sweaters replaced with conservative outfits. She articulates, enunciates, slowing her super-fast, street dialect, superseding Frank’s protests to continue to be her charming self. But Rita is growing academically and socially, and she loves it. “I’m not an idiot now,” she declares.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing; but at “Educating Rita,” it’s enlightening.
BOX INFO: Two-act Olivier Award-winning comedy,written by Willy Russell, appearing through April 10 at the Huntington Theatre main stage, Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston. Performances are Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Saturday, 8 p.m.; select Sundays, 7 p.m.; matinees, select Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays, 2 p.m. Check for show-related events. Tickets are $25-$89; seniors, military, $5 discount; check for others. Call 617-266-0800 or visit huntingtontheatre.org.