‘Educating Rita’ doesn’t quite make the grade

By David Lampe-Wilson
Freelance theater reviewer

Weston Playhouse Theatre opened its 77th season with Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, the story of the relationship of a working-class woman attempting to better herself with the jaded tutor who becomes her mentor. This modern twist on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion should be cool refreshment for a hot summer’s night, a theatrical gin and tonic that’s both bracing and bubbly. But as seen at one of its two preview performances at Weston Playhouse, it can also be simply amusing and dramatically flat.

Seeking to escape the routine of her working class life, Susan enrolls in an Open University’s English literature course. Susan is a 26-year-old hairdresser who has come to believe (as did Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle) that she can find a better life through education. One of her first steps toward her goal of independence is to change her name to Rita, in honor of her favorite author, Rita Mae Brown.

Unlike Shaw’s professor, English tutor Frank is an aging alcoholic who spends much of his life stewing in whiskey; his failed marriage has proved to be as debilitating for him as his failure as a poet. With the arrival of Rita, he is faced with something he’s never had to deal with before – a student who is a refreshing breath of air. Frank begrudgingly accepts her as a student, but then as he begins to look forward to their sessions, is forced to reexamine his own life. As Frank and Rita get to know each other, it soon becomes a question of who is being educated and who is doing the educating. What could be a dour drama of class struggle and search for self-identity is tossed on its head by Russell’s witty dialogue.

Unfortunately, in this performance at least, its two players — Geoffrey Wade as Frank and Sarah Manton as Rita — move aimlessly through a number of tepidly staged scenes, each of which begins and ends without revealing its dramatic arc. There is plenty of standing and shouting and sitting and pacing, but there is little in the way of character development. While the dialogue tells us that changes are being made, there is scant indication of it in the production’s character or tone.

Manton’s Rita is filled with electric energy and uses her strong Liverpudlian accent to command each scene’s comic dialogue. Wade’s dipsomaniac don is ineffectual and his BBC presenter’s accent inevitably flattens out in each scene to Kansas plain. While Russell has written Frank’s lines to vibrate with self-deprecation and stinging sarcasm, Wade never embraces the richly layered dialogue, so we listen to some kind of one-note rag instead of the brutally orchestrated symphony that lies beneath.

Technical achievements in this production are high. Scenic design by Russell Parkman is a suitable study in brown and gray, a disheveled den reflecting both its owner’s personality and its place at a backwater university. Kirche Leigh Zeile’s costumes are determinedly drab with flashes of color to indicate Rita’s progression, while Kendall Smith’s lighting design is seasonally spot-on as it leads us through the academic year.

Educating Rita continues through July 6 at The Weston Playhouse, 703 Main St., in Weston. Performances: nightly through Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; matinees Wednesday and Saturday at 2 p.m. For tickets and information, call 802-824-5288. Or online at www.westonplayhouse.org.

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About the Author: After 30 years as a theater critic and arts editor for a Connecticut daily newspaper, David Lampe-Wilson transplanted to Vermont with his wife and two cats.

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