Thematically, Willy Russell’s Educating Rita is an homage to George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. The 1980 two-character play has had a long life, becoming a 1983 movie starring Michael Caine and original “Rita” Julie Walters, a 1987 Off-Broadway production by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre production pairing Austin Pendleton and Laurie Metcalf, and a widely produced regional theater hit.
On the heels of a major London revival two years ago, Miami’s New Theatre is having its own go at Educating Rita. Veteran actor Peter Haig plays Frank, an alcoholic lapsed poet and university professor taking on a one-on-one literature tutorial in order to pay his considerable booze bills. Dawn A.A. Plummer is Rita, the Liverpool hairdresser who has decided she isn’t too old (at 26) to get a proper education. Over the course of 2 ½ hours, each changes the other, ala Pygmalion.
Though Russell’s play is now more than three decades old, its dialogue and themes are timeless enough that director Steven A. Chambers is largely able to pull off setting Educating Rita in the present day. Sure, Frank’s office (designed by New Theatre artistic director Ricky J. Martinez) sports an antiquated phone, and there’s no mention of the yet-to-be invented internet or cell phones, but the traditional British academic world that Frank and Rita inhabit is properly predominant.
At the play’s outset, Frank is a burnt-out cynic who stashes booze behind many a book and structures his disintegrating life (professional and personal) around his drinking. Rita, whose real name is Susan, has adopted her nickname as a tribute to Rita Mae Brown, author of her current favorite book, The Rubyfruit Jungle. Initially, she’s a funny, free-spirited working class gal who’s hungry to learn, though her increasingly angry husband thinks she ought to be aiming at motherhood, period.
Over time, Frank sculpts Rita into someone who can succeed in traditional academia, a world he has come to loathe. He changes too, but not quickly and not enough. Rita’s changes are life-altering in every way, though pain is as much a part of her growth as joy.
Educating Rita allows for big performances, but Haig and Plummer don’t exploit many of those opportunities; what should be dramatic fireworks are rarely more than brief sparklers.
Frank is supposed to be a wreck on the verge of a career-ending meltdown, but costume coordinator Antoinette Baldwin puts Haig in always-spiffy professor garb, and what is supposed to be his “shaggy” hair is a perfectly coiffed wig. Haig rails or blusters now and then, grimacing and grinning, but he doesn’t go all in with the condescending nastiness and jealous longing that complicate Frank’s character.
Plummer does a decent job with Rita’s Liverpudlian accent, and she’s a likeable presence who gets the audience rooting for Rita to succeed. But her often low-key rendition of Rita the hairdresser doesn’t allow for enough of a contrast with the educated, enlightened, bound-for-success Rita.
A few years ago, Russell adapted the play into a 90-minute radio drama, the same length as the first act of the stage version. Shorter, tighter and bolder might be just the 21st century makeover Educating Rita needs.