By Nadja Hansen
She smokes, he drinks. She’s undereducated, he is a university professor. She desperately wants to gain knowledge, he has the answers. Together they sparkle.
When Rita (Claire Carroll) decides to get an education, she enrolls in an open university and is assigned to Frank (David Black), a jaded professor who is less than thrilled at the prospect of enlightening this twit who can barely enunciate the Queen’s English. He tries to discourage her but she holds her ground and eventually Frank gives in to the vivacious — and pretty — young woman. He agrees to tutor Rita.
Written by Willy Russell, the semi-autobiographical “Educating Rita” is more than a light comedy with undertones of “Pygmalion”-“My Fair Lady.”
At one time it would have been unthinkable for someone of Rita’s background, and female to boot, to enroll in a British university. Higher education was mainly the bailiwick of upper class young men. But the times have changed and Rita is determined to pursue her dream even though the odds are stacked against her and she meets with resistance, first from her domineering husband and her peers, later from fellow students. Eventually, she leaves her spouse and moves in with a like-minded young woman. Together they listen to classical music, go to the theater and generally immerse themselves in a cultural life.
For his part Frank, once a successful poet, now has nothing but contempt for himself, his students and the academic world. He drinks heavily just to get through his days. Gradually, though, he is drawn to Rita, impressed by her intelligence and rapid progress, perhaps too rapid in his opinion. When she comes back from summer school, Rita seems a changed woman. Frank takes a dim view of her newly formed friendships with other students and acts jealous and irrational. Instead of praising her, he lashes out at Rita. Stung, she retorts “I’ll tell you what you can’t bear, Mr. self-pitying piss artist. What you can’t bear is I’m educated now I don’t y’ like me now that the little girl’s grown up, now that y’ can no longer bounce me on daddy’s knee an’ watch me stare back in wide-eyed wonder at everything he has to say I’m educated. I’ve got what you have I I’ve got a room full of books. I know what clothes to wear, what wine to buy, what plays to see, what papers and books to read. I can do without you.”
Yes, Rita has changed for the better. Frank, however, has deteriorated proportionally. He now drinks so much that his students complain and the university’s administration has no choice but to put him on leave.
The play doesn’t exactly end there and I have only brushed on a few of its highlights. Brilliantly directed by Danny Weathers, “Educating Rita” deserves to be seen not only because it is great entertainment, but also because of the questions it raises and its subtones. Even though it highlights, and at times purposely exaggerates certain traits and stereotypes, it neither bashes academics or academia, nor does it put down the less privileged. Through laughter and — at times biting — satire, it educates. And that is priceless.
Both Claire Carroll and David Black do a splendid job. Each perfectly in control of their role, neither one hits a false note at any time.
If Black was tempted to assume a fake British accent, wisely he didn’t. Instead he remains in character throughout and brings out all the pathos and bitterness of a once successful man who realizes his own shortcomings while falling in love with a much younger woman he perceives as his creation.
Carroll’s gradual transformation from a hairdresser dissatisfied with her life and yearning for knowledge and a better life, into a self-assured, well rounded woman, is subtle and clever. She is as much in charge of her persona as Rita is of her future. As her mind expands, her physical image improves and Carroll as Rita charms not only Frank but the audience.
“Educating Rita” is playing at the Waterfront Playhouse on Mallory Square Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. through May 26. For tickets, information and details on the locals’ discount for Wednesday performances, call the box office at 294-5015 or go online at www.waterfrontplayhouse.com.
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