As someone who has worked in higher education for over 23 years, I know the value of a college education. Those holding bachelor’s degrees earn about $1.3 million more than those without over their lifetime. That is partially why I have a fondness for Educating Rita by Willy Russell.
This two-person play is full of wit and philosophical truths about class. Although written in the ’80s, the play’s relevancy rings true, particularly during a time when access to higher education by lower income people is decreasing.
Rita, as she calls herself, played by Tammy Brown, seeks out a tutor in Frank, played astutely by Ed Shea. She is enrolled in this new Open University and is eager to study to take her exams so that she may move into a traditional university. Rita is snarky, tactless and smart. A working class hairdresser, she is hoping to rise out of her “culture” as she calls it. The struggle ensues: She tries to become learned and Frank struggles to teach her without changing who she is.
This is one of those two-person plays that will only work if there is good chemistry between the two actors. Mark Peckham’s direction demonstrates just that. Rita and Ed start off in a hierarchical relationship that becomes egalitarian.
2nd Story harkens back to its early days with a theater in the round. Each scene is short while Rita rushes in and out to make yet another fast costume change. Kudos to her wardrobe assistant for the flawless transitions, kept interesting by a complementary soundtrack and Mr. Rogers-like onstage changes by the professor.
Mark Peckham’s skillful direction keeps the short scenes linked into two seamless acts while the arc builds. If you’ve seen the movie and never seen the play, this is your opportunity to witness solid acting, great writing and a beautiful set. Tammy Brown is a three-dimensional expressive actor whose stage camaraderie with Ed Shea connects perfectly. You are left to wonder if the word “educating” in the title is meant to be an adjective or a verb.