‘Rita’ keeps it real
Shea and Brown sparkle in 2nd Story Theatre comedy
‘Educating Rita’ at 2nd Story has funny-but-serious vibe
WARREN – One set and two characters are all it takes to bring “Educating Rita” to the stage, but what brings 2nd Story Theatre’s production to life are the two actors.
Ed Shea, 2nd Story’s artistic director, and Tammy Brown, in her first role at this theater, are memorable in British playwright Willy Russell’s funny-but-serious play about finding oneself, making changes, and about understanding the grass on the other side may look greener, but it has still has some bare patches.
It’s a charming story, told with humor and insight, and 2nd Story’s production sparkles.
“Educating Rita” follows a familiar “Pygmalion” path. Frank is a burned-out, cynical, alcoholic university professor whose glory days as an intellectual poet are behind him. He doesn’t see meaning in his work anymore and gets through the day with nips from the bottles of booze he hides in the bookshelves of his academic office, where the entire play takes place.
Because he needs money for his liquor, Frank reluctantly takes on a job at an open university, the kind that basically admits anyone with an interest.
That’s how he becomes involves in educating Rita, a talkative, outgoing hairdresser who is bright enough to feel stifled by her unworldly, uneducated life. Knowing that her ambitions will be mocked by her peers and especially by her husband, she uneasily signs up for a literature class at the university, and Frank becomes her tutor.
The way their teacher-student relationship aligns, shifts, and gets out of kilter is the substance of the play. Frank is smitten by the lovely Rita and her lively intellect, which he sees as fresh and appreciative of all he can teach her.
In Frank, Rita sees all that she wants to be, not just educated but confident in knowing the “right” way to behave. But she also learns that the “greener grass” of his world has flaws, as does her own.
Their lives change in ways more realistic and interesting than that other Pygmalion couple, Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, and those qualities are what Shea and Brown bring out. They create authentic characters, with depth — and quirks — we can relate to.
As an actor, Shea is a master at phrasing, putting just the right emphasis and tone on lines like his self-deprecating, “There’s less to me than meets the eye,” making it cynical, weary and funny all at once.
Brown is a spitfire, believable in her exuberance and later in her newly acquired sophistication. She also has a gift for making scripted lines her own.
Director Mark Peckham leads these characters thoughtfully through their self-discovery and then ends the show with a simple, sweet and poignant touch. It’s perfect.
Performances of “Educating Rita” continue through May 22 at 2nd Story Theatre, 28 Market St. Tickets are $30, or $20 for persons age 21 and younger, and are available at the box office in the theater, by calling (401) 2474200 or online at www.2ndstorytheatre.com.