Thoughts & Musings

Learn and Live: An Independent Woman Emerges on 2nd Story Stage

Under Mark Peckham’s expert direction, Ed Shea and Tammy Brown team up to hit a walk-off homerun in Russell’s poignant comedy.

by Dave Christner, Newport Mercury
  • 11th May 201611/05/16
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Before becoming one of Britain’s most successful contemporary playwrights, Willy Russell lived a full measure of the hardscrabble life he examines in his hit comedy, “Educating Rita,” now running at 2nd Story Theatre in Warren.

Russell’s experience as a hairdresser, factory worker, teacher and fish & chips shop manager provided him with more than enough material — known as “life experience” in the trade — to last a lifetime. And he has made good use of this experience in his plays, screenplays and novels. Russell is every bit as clever with words as Noel Coward and, in the case of “Educating Rita,” a good deal more perceptive. Where Coward writes about fluff, Russell gives up stuff, the stuff of life.

Under Mark Peckham’s expert direction, Ed Shea and Tammy Brown team up to hit a walk-off homerun in Russell’s poignant comedy. Shea plays Frank, an embittered and alcoholic professor of literature and failed poet who agrees to tutor hairdresser Rita, an older working-class student, after hours. Frank needs a few extra shillings to help pay his ever-increasing bar tab at the local pub where he tries to drown his sorrows.

The action is depicted in a series of scenes in which the stakes continue to increase as Frank and Rita change as a consequence of Rita’s education. Each introduces the other to a side of life of which they know little. The cynical Frank has given up on the life of the mind and turned to drink for solace; Rita is eager to explore and expand her mind.

Shea and Brown are utterly charming in their roles.

The chemistry between them is as natural as a blanket of fog rolling over an English moor in a Dickens’ novel.

They handle Russell’s smart dialogue and biting humor with an English flair as authentic as the Queen’s Guard, finding every nuance in a character’s identity.

Costume Designer Ron Cesario has the two changing costumes for every scene, but Frank is immutable — tie, no tie, sagging sweater or fitted corduroy jacket, he is always the disheveled academic.

As Rita grows, so does her wardrobe as an expression of her confidence and emerging intellect. She even drops her fantasy name of “Rita” and takes on the name and persona of Susan. Susan is her given name and is much more representative of the woman she is becoming.

The play is performed upstairs and “in the round” on a set designed by Max Ponticelli to emulate the office of a beleaguered lecturer on the lowest rung of the academic ladder. Two leather chairs occupy opposite corners of an oriental rug and low profile bookcases positioned on the perimeter of the rug hold Frank’s collection of literary classics and double as a hiding place for his stock of vintage scotch.

Frank is both attracted to and troubled by what Rita becomes under his tutelage.

The more she learns about herself and of the outside world, the less control he has over her. When Frank learns she has abandoned the name Rita for Susan, he spontaneously decides that he might just as well change his name as well: to “Mary Shelley.”

Mary Shelley, of course, is the author of “Frankenstein.” And Frank’s choice of a new name is no coincidence. Without wrenching one’s elementary intuitive notions, it is clear Rita is anything but a teacher’s pet, far from it. The new woman Frank creates is everyman’s greatest nightmare: an educated, independent woman, a woman who is his intellectual equal and not about to take any chauvinist crap.

This is great stuff and the way in which Russell lets Frank fashion his own Frankenstein is not only ingenious but enormously entertaining. Like Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle, the liberated Rita is not going to be fetching any professor’s slippers!

As a brilliant final touch, Russell has Rita giving Frank a haircut. When Delilah did that to Sampson in the Cecil B. DeMille biblical classic, Sampson lost a lot more than his hair and ultimately had a really bad day.

“Educating Rita” is colossal hit in a very small space.

It is so intelligently crafted and so finely acted and directed that you’re likely to leave the theater feeling a little smarter yourself. Don’t miss this one!

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