Who’s educating who? This is the not so cryptic underlying question of Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, the veddy British dramedy that in the ‘80s made a star out of Julie Walters, the actress who originated the title role on London’s West End and reprised it in a well-received film co-starring Michael Caine. While Rita is the one seeking an education, her tutor, Frank, is immersed in a serious case of professor, teach thyself.
The parts of the alcoholic Open University prof and the working-class girl he’s tutoring in literature and in life are decidedly showy ones. In other words, there’s dangerous opportunity for the pair playing the roles in Russell’s two-character play to run amok. Director Rosina Reynolds keeps that from happening in the North Coast Rep’s new production of Educating Rita, which features Meghan Andrews (last seen at NCR in Words by Ira Gershwin and the Great American Songbook) as the unpolished hairdresser who reads Harold Robbins and Bjorn Johnson as Frank, who hides his Scotch whiskey on bookshelves behind volumes of Dickens. Andrews’ accent doesn’t always sound exclusively Liverpudilian, and she occasionally seems to speak to the audience rather than to Johnson, but her good-natured Rita is a sympathetic one. She also gets to change outfits a dozen times. The more restrained Johnson with his unkempt hair and beard bears Frank’s burdens of booze and too many bad essays well, and conveys the rumpled look of a timeworn academic.
Like Pygmalion, Educating Rita is a tale of opposite classes learning to appreciate the other. Rita wants to understand great literature; Frank, it turns out, wants to understand her (he’s given up on himself). The two searching souls achieve a restless acceptance of their destinies, Frank’s more restless than Rita’s.
There are moments of genuine warmth and amusement in this production, though many of the quickly unfolding mini-scenes are short on dramatic tension. Frank’s college-office set, in which the entire play takes place, would feel claustrophobic if it weren’t so appealing (kudos to scenic artist John Finkbiner). No wonder it is, in different ways, both Frank’s and Rita’s escape.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.