Thoughts & Musings

Theater Review: Great chemistry makes 2nd Story’s ‘Rita’ a winner

The show is a gem, with more than a few laughs, and well executed transformation of two very different people who in a way both find themselves.

by Channing Gray, Providence Journal

There was a time when it was a rare occurrence to find Ed Shea on stage. He’s spent most of his career at 2nd Story Theatre behind the scenes directing. But more and more he’s been taking on acting roles, which has paid off big time in the theater’s current offering, Willy Russell’s charming “Educating Rita.”

Shea, who is sporting a full beard, plays a hard-drinking poet once the darling of academia who is now a washed up professor. He’s terrific in the part, brilliant but embittered after too much Scotch, which he keeps hidden in his bookshelf, and too many courses in Blake.

But his portrayal of Frank would not be nearly so impressive if it weren’t for the deft little dance he does with Tammy Brown’s Rita, a plucky hairdresser, who shows up at his office and demands to know “everything.” She’s feels trapped in a bad marriage and an unrewarding job, and she wants to change. She wants a taste of culture, wants to know all the answers.

Thus begins a tentative relationship, in which feisty Rita begins to immerse herself in the world of books and theater.

Her first steps are understandable a bit wobbly. When she’s asked to write a paper on “Howard’s End” her assessment is “crap.” But it’s not long before she is taking in performances of Shakespeare, and reciting Blake from memory.

But Frank is somehow torn. There is a freshness about Rita he doesn’t want lost. And then there is a growing sense that divorced Frank is falling for her. He’s jealous when she talks about the male students she hangs out with, and the trajectory of the play is not quite as neat as we might have first thought.

Director Mark Peckham does a nice job making clear the arc of that journey, the way Rita begins to feel she is becoming the equal of her mentor.

This causes its share of tension, but in the end they form a sweet friendship that doesn’t have much at all to do with iambic pentameter.

Again, the chemistry between Brown and Shea is spot-on. It’s the perfect pairing.

The show, which runs through May 22, is in the larger upstairs theater, which is now configured in the round, with a nifty office filled with books, and an old manual typewriter parked at Frank’s desk.

True, the show is a bit episodic, strung together with one short scene after another. Shea sits in his office, sipping whisky, as Rita pops in and out every five minutes to gush over her latest discovery.

But Peckham somehow manages to string all these sparkling vignettes together so the emotional soul of the play shines through.

At first, I thought Shea and Brown could have dropped the English accents. But there is a moment when Rita shows up speaking proper English, and that would not have been detectable had they stuck with Rhode Islandese.

Anyway, the show is a gem, with more than a few laughs, and well executed transformation of two very different people who in a way both find themselves.

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