BWW Reviews: Theatre 40 Stages a Richly Intelligent EDUCATING RITA
When I first saw the film of Educating Rita in the early 80s I was captivated by Julie Walters. It made the Brit actress an international star. Now at Theatre 40 Willy Russell's play Educating Rita receives a handsome staging with another captivating beauty Murielle Zuker. It's a two-character play co-starring Adrian Neil and directed by Robert Mackenzie through June 23.
As in any good two-character play the pair come together out of need, sometimes desperation. They start out disliking one another, but by play's end they are either close friends, romantically involved or both. Willy Russell has a keen eye/ear for lower class British society. Remember Blood Brothers? There's a clash between upper and lower middle-class values. One has extreme difficulty fitting in, but... there is a deep desire for change, so much so that the character struggles, breaks through and ultimately champions. In this case, Rita, or Susan, wants an education and Frank, a drunk and jaded poet/professor, is reluctant to take her on for tutorials in an open university setting in Northern England in 1980. The course is critical analysis of literature. Rita is a common hairdresser, who can barely speak the mother tongue properly, let alone read and appreciate a book. In fact, she calls E. M. Forrester's Howard's End crap when she first tries to plough through it, because of one statement she finds within its covers concerning indifference toward the poor. When asked about the challenges of mounting a production of Peer Gynt, her initial response is "Do it on the radio". She is from the gutter, so to speak, Professor Henry Higgins' dream student, but for Frank...no, definitely not! Deep-down, of course, he falls for her brash charm and inability to have an opinion that holds water, so he accepts the challenge, and eventually the lessons pay off. Rita becomes educated. She passes the exam and is almost on equal footing. A woman on equal footing with a man? G.B. Shaw would shrink in horror, but Frank is in a fragile state, a far weaker position than Henry Higgins. Russell avoids the male superiority that dominates Shaw and lets Rita have the last word, a true winner, a real champion. Russell, like Shaw, is sparkling with his very own wit and sense of humor, which shows up in both characters' appraisals of the other's lifestyle.
Under Mackenzie's smooth, finely paced direction, the two actors are miraculous to watch. From the moment Zuker steps onstage, she lets us see Rita's vulnerability, isolation and desperation. Her growth into prime scholar/cultural whiz is thoroughly convincing. A very real and believable transformation that Zuker makes her very own. A luminous and exciting performance! Neil as Frank rather underplays the alcoholism, making the drunken bouts real, not over the top. He and Zuker create a nice balance, a natural chemistry throughout. Jeff G. Rack does it again with his perfect set design of the professor's lair, and Michaelle Young does great work with costuming, especially Zuker's bright print dresses for Act II, which show Rita's confident evolution from plain Jane frump to striking female.
Go see Educating Rita at Theatre 40, remembering full well that this is late seventies/early eighties, not now, at a time when women were finding their own individual style. The direction, the performances and Willy Russell's wit make the production like Rita herself...a real winner.
(photo credit: Ed Krieger)