THEATER REVIEW: Culture and class clash in “Educating Rita”

Can a wide-eyed seeker of truth and knowledge preserve her passion for learning despite the efforts of a beaten-down purveyor of public education who fears that British college classes are more likely to stultify than inspire?

That’s the question at hand in Willy Russell’s “Educating Rita,” playing through Feb. 3 at North Coast Repertory Theatre and directed by Rosina Reynolds.

At heart this is a cultural and class confrontation. Rita (Meghan Andrews) is a young hairdresser who arrives in the book-lined office of university professor Frank for tutoring. This is a first for both: the undereducated Rita is taking advantage of the university’s self-improvement offerings through what is called Open University; Frank (Bjørn Johnson), who hides his whiskey bottles behind those impressive-looking book stacks, has taken on this tutoring challenge for the first time – not for any lofty educational goal, but merely to support his alcohol habit.

Chris Luessmann’s sound beds reflect the clash brilliantly, accompanying the drama with a group of ‘80s pop tunes presented in pretentious string quartet form.

Russell gives the best lines (and the better character delineation) to Rita, and Andrews makes the most of them, winning the audience over with a fine working-class Liverpool accent and a charming character with a believable dramatic arc.

Frank comes across as a grumpy old prof whose effective use-by date has probably passed. An academic (i.e., not widely read) poet who first considers himself too good for this job, he nonetheless finds himself first amused, then enchanted by this young woman with an irrepressible spirit and a determination for self-improvement.

Frank is reluctant to teach Rita what she needs to know to pass the exam, because it will inevitably change her wacky but refreshing way of analyzing literature and of expressing her thoughts. He is horrified at the thought that soon she will start writing – and thinking – just like his other students.

Those who recall the film (starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters) may be surprised at the choppy effect of the stage version. The play has 14 short, vignette-like scenes in between which the audience mostly watches Frank change sweaters or jackets on the darkened stage.

Nonetheless, Andrews (last seen as the Chanteuse in “Words by....”) sells this show all by herself, with her skintight clothes, endearing thirst for knowledge, and hair that changes shades to reflect her new sophistication.

Johnson’s Frank is not unlike burned-out teachers I have known (I’ve spent most of my life in education): once ready to change the face of education (or at least the enlightenment level of their students) and inspired to see the light bulb go on in those young faces, now he relies on the bottle to help him make it to retirement.

So the wheel of life turns, and this bittersweet story plays out on Marty Burnett’s wondrous fine set (though Frank has a much nicer office than any teacher I know), inviting us to ponder the importance of education and life.

The details

“Educating Rita” plays through Feb. 3 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach.

Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

For tickets: (858) 481-1055 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.