Willy Russel’s witty "Educating Rita" has been begun its run at Miami’s New Theatre. Fresh off a somewhat recent revival in London and quite popular in regional theatres all around the English-speaking world, the play is a well-written, thought-provoking examination of the teacher-student relationship.
The two-character play centers around Frank, a professor of Literature at a small, but ’open’ university who has given up on the many passions that once fueled him. He considers himself a failed poet and is now an unapologetic alcoholic (albeit a very proper and ethical one) who hides his many bottles behind books all over his office.
Rita, whose real name is Susan, has changed her name to Rita as a tribute to Rita Mae Brown, author of her favorite book at the beginning of the play, "Rubyfruit Jungle." Rita is a 26-year old hairdresser with a yearning to be educated, thus gaining some culture. She begins to visit Frank for private one on one ’tutorials’ and as is typical of teacher-student accounts, by the end of the play, the student has become the teacher.
Despite being a 30-year-old play, the dialogue remains intelligent and relevant, although it does rely heavily on references to literary figures like E.M. Forster and Chekov to help move the plot along. Much of the commentary may be lost on those who are not as well read as the typical audience may have been in London 30 years ago, when the play was originally staged.
The staging would hardly qualify as challenging, but director Steven A. Chambers does an adequate job of directing the piece so that the characters’ movements and actions help reveal their true objectives. Ricky J. Martinez, New Theatre’s artistic director, serves as set designer for this particular piece and designs Frank’s office to both mirror and exemplify Frank’s character flaws.
Dawn A.A. Plummer is enjoyable as Rita; she gives the character the necessary peculiarities required as Rita demands the audience’s attention from the moment she sets foot on stage. Her British accent is convincing and she portrays Rita as the quirky, thirsty-for-knowledge young lady she is.
The same cannot be said for Peter Haig as Frank. I found Mr. Haig’s performance to be a bit too ’caricature-ish’ in that he spent most of the performance, in a word, removed from his character. I found it difficult to suspend disbelief and accept him as the savvy but repentant college professor he is supposed to play (the almost comical wig he was forced to wear did not help matters).
Ultimately, I would have to categorize this production of "Educating Rita" as a satisfactory one. Perhaps the production would have benefitted from an update or a re-working of the location where it is set.
It’s difficult to determine whether or not an update would have made a significant difference to play that has few enduring qualities. What I can say is this: this particular production lacks the ’wow’ factor that would make the $40 ticket price justifiable.