Education can be an equalizer and a ticket out of poverty, but why are the so-called “uneducated” quickly discounted? Can education satisfy a desire for a better life, or does it ultimately make one cynical? Eventide Theatre Company explores these questions in its illuminating drama “Educating Rita.”
Playwright Willy Russell’s semi-autobiographical, Pygmalion-type play focuses on Rita (Erica Morris), a plucky, 26-year-old working-class hairdresser from Liverpool, who has a thirst for more than her local pub can offer. Ignoring her husband’s objections, she enrolls in an “open university” (a precursor to on-line schools) and is assigned an English professor to guide her on her liberal arts journey. Frank (Jody O’Neil), a life-long academic and poet of minor acclaim, admittedly has taken on the tutoring position only “to pay for the drink.”
The acclaimed actress Julie Walters not only created the role of Rita in the 1980 West End comedy, but she starred opposite Michael Caine in the powerful Academy-award nominated film in 1983. Both set a high standard for future actors following in their footsteps.
Under Stephen Ross’ direction, both Morris and O’Neil rise to this challenge effortlessly, wholly fleshing out these complex characters. It is a joy to behold their interchanges as they visibly feed off of each other’s energy, highlighting their intricately layered acting.
At the play’s start, both characters are on opposite ends on the ladder of life — the student seemingly a few rungs up and the professor high in the proverbial ivory tower. As the drama unfolds, their positions change, as Rita and Frank move towards each other, and at some point, through life choices and compromises, they pass, with Rita reaching for her dreams, and Frank succumbing to his internal darkness.
Morris is a highly charged and lovable Rita whose zeal for life cannot be contained to the stage. She embodies her character’s determination to change her circumstances through education. With the help of Judy Chesley’s many costume changes, Morris convincingly goes from a garishly dressed and swearing wannabee student to a carefree, intellectual bohemian. By the play’s end, she is fully transformed and filled with self-assurance.
O’Neil is gracing the Eventide stage for the third time, and surprisingly, he is once again playing a drunkard (he was last seen in “A Moon for the Misbegotten”). In the physically taxing two-person play, O’Neil shines as his character basks in Rita’s gratitude and admiration, with his face full of boyish charm and a touch of flirtation. As Rita changes, compromising her unique tell-it-like-it-is personality in the process, O’Neil notably dims his inner light, weighted by Frank’s tragic downfall — “the drink.”
Toby Wilson’s set design is the quintessential professor’s office, complete with hunter-green painted walls, dark-stained wainscoting and bookcase-lined walls. Greg Hamm’s lighting accentuates the room’s many details and cozy feel.
Eventide’s two-hour-plus, transformative comedy overflows with thought-provoking and witty dialogue, delving into many universal themes: free will, personal change, formal education versus street smarts, tragic faults, and the privilege of the intellectual elite.
Eventide Theatre Company, 713 Route 6A, Dennis
Through May 28
Information and reservations: 508-398-8588