Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 2007
As I wander through the theatrical landscape, I am always on the look-out for interesting juxtapositions of plays, and I cannot believe that it is a coincidence that the Berkshire Theatre Festival is concluding its summer season with two plays that examine questions surrounding the economic and educational empowerment of women.
George Bernard Shaw’s 1893 play Mrs. Warren’s Profession being presented on the Main Stage through September 2, recalls a time when career opportunities were so limited that even a university education did not ensure a woman the ability to support herself. On the Unicorn Stage Willy Russell’s two-character comedy Educating Rita brings us to an age when educated women had a wide variety of careers open to them, but intellectual curiosity was still dictated along socio-economic lines.
Russell was born in Liverpool, where Educating Rita takes place, and left school at the age of 15 to become a hairdresser. Later in life he decided to continue his education and become a teacher. The title character of Educating Rita, Susan White, aka Rita, is a 26-year-old Liverpool hairdresser who signs on for an Open University course in English literature to fulfill a burning desire to learn. Director Richard Corley identifies himself in his director’s notes as a “child of the working class” and says that he was the first person in his immediate family to attend college. In contrast Dalton native Tara Franklin, who plays Susan/Rita, is the daughter of a schoolteacher and a nurse and holds degrees from New York University and the University of Connecticut.
The other Shavian connection here is the obvious parallel between “Educating Rita” and Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion. Like Eliza Doolittle, Susan/Rita is intelligent, stubborn, and independent. In both cases the male professors come off far worse in the end than their female protégées. Both men are smitten with their women, but neither relationship ever blossoms further than that of admiring student and teacher.
And while Henry Higgins may actually have the upper hand for a while, Frank never does. Frank is a disillusioned aging alcoholic with a truly dreadful mop of shoulder-length grey hair. As played by Jonathan Epstein we see only quick flashes of the real Frank, the inner Frank. For the most part we see the façade – the façade of world-weariness, the façade of academia, the façade of intellectual superiority that he maintains to protect the fragile remains of the man he once was.
Like Higgins and Eliza, there is a large age gap between Frank and Rita/Susan, as well as a cultural one and an educational one, but there is never an intellectual one. Franklin’s Rita/Susan is a whirling dervish of firing synapses. She bursts into Frank’s stodgy old University rooms like a hurricane force wind, driving all the dust and clutter away and leaving the room clear for what she wants and needs, which is to learn. She wants to learn “everything” and by that she means not just facts but skills. She wants to learn how to learn, she wants to learn how to be taken seriously as an intellectual.
When we first meet Rita/Susan she is stuck in a world where intellectual curiosity is frowned on and education isn’t valued. Her husband doesn’t understand why she wants an education instead of a baby. She describes a night out at the pub with her mother and sister and girlfriends in which they sing karaoke, and at the end her mother laments that they didn’t sing good enough songs. Rita/Susan longs to sing the good songs right out loud. She asks Frank to call her Rita after an author, Rita Mae Brown, whose 1973 first novel Rubyfruit Jungle she admires. Frank makes fun of her taste in literature, but in the end he comes to understand the pleasure of a “thumping good read” while Rita/Susan thrills to the delights of great literature. And we learn that Frank is the only one who has ever called her Rita, and that in her real life, despite the dramatic changes she has made, she as always been known as Susan. Frank has never really known her at all.
In the end Rita tells Frank that he is a good teacher, and she is right. He is a lousy human being, but he is a good teacher. He is kind but firm with her. He admires her innate talents while helping her recognize the ways in which she will have to tame them to conform with the stultified educational system she just traverse. He teaches her to read and write and think critically. He frees her to be who and what she knows she is inside and longs to be for all the world to see. And once he has equipped and empowered her, he must let her go.
The play covers about eighteen months, during which time Rita/Susan goes from an uneducated married hair-dresser with a broadly common accent to a polished, educated, and well-spoken young woman, divorced and working in a bistro. Frank goes from being an almost on-the-skids academic to an academic in exile – in the last scene he is packing up his office for an enforced stint teaching in Australia. She rises as he falls and what we see are their encounters as they pass.
Russell has structured the play in many scenes, some of them very brief indeed. While Franklin gets to go off stage to change between scenes, Epstein is always on stage, his occasional changes of jackets and sweaters and surreptitious gulps of water are handled in the semi-darkness of the scene changes, amidst the scurrying of black-clad techies. I didn’t mind this activity, especially since loud pop music from the period (1980) was played to cover the inevitable clunkings and whispers that attend such endeavors.
But I did think that there were way too many scenes before intermission. Nearly 90 minutes elapsed between the start of the show and intermission, while a mere 45 minutes passed between the resumption of action and the curtain call. Ninety minutes is a long time to sit at a stretch and I think Corley could have devised a more equitable division of the action.
Not only do Franklin and Epstein do a decent job with their British accents, Franklin does well morphing hers from coarse to refined. David Alan Stern worked with both actors as the dialect coach, wisely warning Franklin that if she spoke with a true Liverpuddlian accent an American audience wouldn’t be able to understand her. Certainly both her accent and Epstein’s would grate on the ears of true Brits, but they are successful in conveying Russell’s story and Rita/Susan’s intellectual trajectory while being easy enough for simple Yankee ears to understand.
Joseph Varga has designed a wonderful set which fills the Unicorn Stage completely and really does feel like a bit of dinosaurian British academic architecture ripped from its moorings and transported whole to Stockbridge. Holly Bloomquist has devised believable indoor and outdoor lighting plans, the latter seen only dimly through Frank’s never-opened leaded glass windows.
Costume designer Sarah Reever has designed a series of costumes and hairstyles for Franklin which allow Rita/Susan exterior to telegraph the internal transformations she has undergone between scenes.
While Russell’s play is neither challenging nor particularly original (not only does it have its obvious Shavian influences, it is also very much a prequel to his successful 1988 one-woman show Shirley Valentine) this production is fine theatre and well worth seeing. I think it is a wise choice for the BTF to run through the fall months and I expect it will do well for them. Fall visitors who came to see Via Dolorosa last year will enjoy seeing Epstein in a completely different role, and local audiences will have the fun of seeing their local girl made good.
Educating Rita runs from August 21-31, and again from September 27-October 20 on the Unicorn Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival (box office 413-298-5536) between Rts. 7 & 102 in Stockbridge. The show runs two hours and fifteen minutes and is suitable for ages 13 and up. Younger children will simply find it too wordy.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007