Sprawled drunkenly in the middle of the floor with his feet propped against an elegant mahogany desk, Dr. Frank Bryant (Andrew Long) recounts a lecture he just gave during which he took an inebriated tumble from his lectern. “I may have fallen, my dear,” he says proudly to his tutee Rita (Jane Pfitsch), “but I went down talking and came up talking. I never missed a syllable.”
Willy Russell’s “Educating Rita”—a Huntington Theatre Company production running until April 10 at the Boston University Theatre—is packed with comedic successes. At times, it’s the characters’ mannerisms, such as Frank rummaging through his books murmuring the names of authors only to exclaim “Dickens!” when he finally finds what he was looking for: not a book, but a bottle of scotch. Elsewhere, it’s the witty banter between Frank and Rita. Often, it’s Rita’s comically ridiculous facial expression, as she looks at Frank: eyes wide, eyebrows cocked, a half smile on her face. But the humorous surface of “Educating Rita” hides thematic depth: under the skillful direction of Maria Aitken, this seemingly simple comedy hammers home serious messages about change, courage, the dangers of conformity, and the value of an education.
The story begins with Rita, a hairdresser who enters the Open University in northern England to study literature because she is dissatisfied with her life. She convinces the eternally tipsy Frank to tutor her, and thus begins a complex, mutually educational relationship. As the two meet for their weekly sessions, Rita sweeps Frank off his feet with her unbridled curiosity and hunger for knowledge, and Frank transforms Rita’s world by introducing her to literature, the world of art, and new ways of thinking. Admist countless jokes, the two stumble through issues of gender, class, conformity, social and personal change, and the dangers and value of a “proper” education.
The most prominent success of “Educating Rita” is its ability to stay lighthearted and humorous while dealing intermittently with intense subjects. The effectiveness of this balance is in part due to the comic contrast between Pfitsch’s bustling, sassy Rita and Long’s scruffy, lackadaisical Frank. Even their costumes, designed by Nancy Brennan, highlight their disparities: Rita’s bright blonde hair and orange and green checkered skirt contrast sharply with Frank’s dull brown suit jacket and gray slacks.
Aitken switches to a more serious mood only when necessary. When she does so, however, the actors respond brilliantly. Late in the play, Frank is fed up with Rita’s presumptions. “I don’t think I can bear it any longer,” he says. “Bear what?” she replies. “You, my dear. You,” Long growls loudly, stretching out each word, staring at Rita from across the stage, and leaning in for emphasis. The atmosphere transforms suddenly from carefree to tense.
Aitken also uses subtle cues to drive home the play’s messages, allowing “Educating Rita” to maintain its comic front while remaining meaningful. The lighting, designed by Joel E. Silver, traces Frank and Rita’s relationship; as the two become closer friends, the lighting becomes more natural and warm, entering through the windows in the back of the set, and when the two get more combative, the lighting gets harsher. At one point, Frank switches on the ugly, bright, fluorescent light that was turned off during the first act, emphasizing the growing gap between him and Rita.
Allen Moyer’s set, a realistic and beautiful rendition of a professor’s office, also helps drive home the message of “Educating Rita.” Populated by shelves overflowing with books, papers scattered throughout the room, and an imposing desk atop an ornate carpet and backed by airy windows, its permanence provides a constant reminder of the effect of Rita’s education on her life and views.
In the end, all of these nuances come together effectively with more direct scenes that trace the transformative effects Rita’s education has on her life, herself, and her relationship with Frank. She combats gender restrictions in the form of her husband, who wants her to stay at home and have children, as well as isolating class divides and personal inhibitions. She upturns all that she once held dear and dedicates herself to an education that, as Frank warned her in the beginning of the play, will change her, and not entirely for the better.
However, by the end of the play it is clear that education has not simply changed Rita’s life. Rather, it has given her the power to change her own life. It has given her choice. As the play comes to a close, Frank asks Rita about her plans for the future. “I might go to France. I might go to me mother’s. I might even have a baby. I dunno,” she responds, her mind bubbling with possibilities. What is important, though, is what she says after, clearly and confidently: “I’ll make a decision. I’ll choose.”
—Staff writer Keerthi Reddy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.