Educating Rita At Huntington Theatre

Delightful Comedy of Class and Enlightenment

By: - Mar 17, 2011

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Educating Rita
The Huntington Theatre Company
By Willy Russell
Directed by Maria Aitken

Andrew Long as Frank
Jane Pfitsch as Rita

Allen Moyer Scenic Designer
Nancy Brennan Costume Designer
Joel E. Silver Lighting Designer
John Gormada Original and Music and Sound Designer
Seaghan McKay III Projection Designer
March 11-April 10
At the Boston University Theatre
264 Huntington Avenue, Boston MA 02115

Set at a university in the north of England, Educating Rita at the Huntington Theatre is a delightful play of contemporary academics and social class mobility. Creating a play from vignettes of two distinctly different individuals infrequently meeting for tutorials is a masterful narrative device by playwright Willy Russell. It focuses on character development, self-destruction and self-discovery in this comedy of intellect and society.

Growing up in the epicenter of 60s pop culture, Liverpool, playwright Willy Russell's plays, particularly Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine, and the tragi-musical Blood Brothers, have been in production continuously since their premieres. Russell's plays are funny and the characters are somehow familiar. Blood Brothers is a melodrama and Shirley Valentine is a one-character comedy, but Educating Rita is more thoughtfully complex.

In Educating Rita, 1970s working class Liverpool is the most important off-stage character. It is also Rita's biggest obstacle. Rita is self-aware. She feels that she needs enough to realize she needs more than what the culture affords her as a young woman of limited education. When her tutor, Frank, asks what she wants to learn she responds, "Everything!" This hunger sets the stage for her journey to being a different person. This also is the beginning of her ascendancy while it starts Frank's descent.

Rita's culture and background lend to her an authenticity that Frank cannot resist. Expecting to be bored by "some silly woman's attempts to get into the mind of Henry James," he gets enraptured by a vibrant, attractive, mature student with a different perspective on life. Frank goes through changes as well especially his habit of drink, personal relationships and career. Both characters go through deep transformations that cause them to give up their own respective experiential backgrounds. For better or worse, these changes come at a personal cost.

Thoughtfully, Willy Russell has said that Educating Rita was a celebration of academic life and a young woman's spirited enthusiasm about personal development and fulfillment of oneself through education. Yet, there are many potential pitfalls. The true affection between Rita and Frank is one of the enduring qualities of the play. Here, their love is not romantic. This play makes the strongest case for educational growth, personal fulfillment, and true regard for others.

Those of us over a certain age remember Educating Rita (1983) as a film with Michael Caine as Frank and Julie Walters as Rita. It was a delightful film. The movie was an adaptation of Willy Russell's play. This play's truer reading of Educating Rita deals more strongly with the very human themes of personal freedom, change, England's class system, institutional education's shortcomings, self-development and relationships. Certainly the play borrows from George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. 

The two actors in this Huntington Theatre production, Andrew Long as Frank and Jane Pfitsch as Rita, work extremely well in tandem. Each brings a characterization to their role that is at once appealing yet at times provocative. An early in the play criticism is the problematic Liverpoolian or Mancunian (accent from the City of Manchester) accent of Jane Pfitsch's Rita. It is hard to tell where the accent is suppose to be from. It is also a bit hard to understand. As the play progresses, her accent is more modulated and eventually flattens out well as she becomes "educated." That said, the two actors overall are rather wonderful in their roles.

Andrew Long's Frank seems just boozy enough and professorially arrogant. His descent into academic exile and drunkenness are done with wit and style. Jane Pfitsch's Rita has greater nuance in that her character is strategically changing rather than making only personal mistakes as is Frank. Her performance is very alive and perky with a sense of realistic charm underscored by experience.

The set and stagecraft are as usual are Huntington Theatre Company superb. Allen Moyer's set places the characters' dialogue just so while Nancy Brennan costumes visually portray Rita's growth throughout the play. Seaghan McKay III's projections of changing weather and seasons through Frank's office windows are so good that they are a character in the play as well. Maria Aitken's direction was like watching an elegant dance.

This production of Educating Rita is a real theatrical treat. After a long cold winter, it is a breath of springtime and everything that means. Bravo.