Educating Rita by Willy Russell. Directed by Malcolm Ewen.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Geoffrey Wade and Sarah Manton; photo provided
"...know the difference between Jane Austen and Ethel Austin."
Somehow classic legends never get tired. For Willy Russell’s first play he sidestepped a classic of the English theater, George Bernard Shaw’s "Pygmalion" and gave us two characters who might have been familiar with that work in some form as his principal characters in a 1980 play he titled "Educating Rita." As in the Shaw play (and the musical based on it, "My Fair Lady") a professor undertakes the education of a common girl, common clay you might say, and he re-forms her into someone he could love. His own love has turned into a sour marriage and her marriage soon goes belly up as she spends more and more time with her tutor. This simple little story is now on stage at the Weston Playhouse in Weston, Vermont.
This is a comedy with a tiny little tug at the heart near the end of the second act, a classic form for such a play. You can catch a similar moment in the musical or in the Shaw play when Eliza walks out on Henry Higgins, deserting him after his successful new construction of her, but in both editions she comes back to him, displaying her old ways that once charmed him. For Rita and Frank there is a similar blow-up and walk-out, followed by his declaration of purpose and her return to her old profession to make him feel better. It’s a sweet, if familiar, ending.
Malcolm Ewen, the director of the Weston production, has had the luck to find engaging players to take on the roles of Frank and Rita. With them he has created a tiny microcosm of a world where education and comprehension are the essential keys to beauty and respectability and even to affection for the mind, heart and soul of a person rather than for outward appearances. He has played with their world, a musty room filled with old books and aged Scotch, and found postures and poses and romantic pliés that put Rita and Frank into the inevitable dance of romance. His control of the uses of intimacy works wonders for these two characters. This play is as memorable for his delicate staging as it is for the fine work by the two actors on stage.
Geoffrey Wade plays Frank, a taciturn, irresolute older man who tenuous holds on his marriage and his job depend on one thing, his drinking. You will recognize him from his television appearances on major network shows as well as his other stage work. As an actor he seems equally at home with all the various stages of inebriation he has to play here and when he delivers a line of encouragement or of educational importance his sincerity sounds much more real than we would have any reason to expect. In fact his naturalness works to his advantage more than once in this play. His much touted respect for Rita as a person, for example, which dominates three of the many scenes in the play is given an accomplished sense of statement by Wade. He doesn’t appear to be acting at all but to be genuinely interested in the woman, actually speaking to her and not to a "character.’
Rita is played by Sarah Manton whose delicious Liverpudlian accent is replaced momentarily by the perfect speech technique that harks back to Eliza in Pygmalion again as she tries out what education has wrought only to bring down her house of cards in laughter and a sudden realization that losing yourself in someone else’s vision of you is totally wrong. Later in the play she tells Frank, "I couldn’t betray meself." She means it and Manton pulls this off with aplomb. Manton’s voice tends to the shrill side and her speeches are delivered at a fast pace which, with her accent, sometimes render her lines unintelligible. But it is never what she says, but how she says it that makes the difference in this play. Like Wade her sincere attack on this character and her relationship to Frank are realized without theatricality.
Thanks to Ewen and his actors we are flies on the wall observing the transformation of a rock, a lump into a raving beauty who cannot contain her enthusiasm for her new life by a man who needs to undergo a makeover of his own. This is delightful theater with something for everyone.
Russell Parkman’s fine set is used to almost a full 360 reality. Kirche Leigh Zeile has created costumes that speak to the period of the play and yet bring us a timeless sense of things. Kendall Smith is a subtle lighting designer and his work quietly underscores each emotional turn. Cole Hamrick uses sound and music to bridge gaps, set moods and return energy to the stage.
I like this play very much and thoroughly enjoyed my time in the Weston Playhouse watching these people at work during a preview performance. Their mission is just what is needed: bring this play and its message of the value of education at any age, at any social level to the people, all the people, all the time. Take your seat, fellow theatergoer, and bring out your eyes, ears and mind. This is a very worthwhile choice to be making at this time in your life.
Educating Rita plays at the Weston Playhouse at 703 Main Street, Weston, VT through July 6. For information and tickets call the box office at 802-824-5288 or go on line at www.westonplayhouse.org.