Renaissance Theaterworks continues its 20th season with Educating Rita, a play that teams a young, uneducated woman in her mid-20s with a cynical, boozy academic. It doesn’t seem like a match made in heaven. But this excellent production, directed by Jenny Wanasek, creates a captivating connection between these two people. Both start out as lost souls. By the time the play winds down to its bittersweet ending, only one of the souls finds itself and soars toward fulfillment.
Many audiences link Educating Rita with the popular 1983 film of the same title, starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters. However, there isn’t much sense in comparing this live performance to a 30-year-old film. Suffice to say that this production holds its own in a quirky, funny exploration of “education” as viewed by different generations and London’s different social classes. (Rita bears more than a slight resemblance to George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.)
Well-known Milwaukee actor Jonathan Smoots deliberately underplays Frank, the lifelong academic near the end of his career. He reluctantly agrees to tutor one of the university’s non-traditional students (Rita, played by Cristina Panfilio). Smoots’ wise choice (to underplay Frank) allows Rita’s overblown personality to stand out all the more.
When Rita breezes into Frank’s spacious, bookcase-filled office, this Liverpool lass realizes at once that she is out of her element. Unfazed, she tries to calm herself by constantly walking around the room, commenting on things such as his view from a window, his taste in art, etc. She seems almost overwhelmed by the rows of books lining the walls.
The play’s humor truly shines in this production. When Rita is handed a copy of “Howard’s End,” one of the books she’ll have to study, she reads the title aloud and announces that it “sounds dirty.” This is one of the play’s many entertaining moments.
At first, Frank is alternately astonished, annoyed and amused by Rita, the waif-ish young woman who yearns for an education. Rita’s appearance is quite an eyeful: she is dressed in a red velvet coat, a black mini-skirt and a multi-colored scarf. She carries a large, fabric handbag that substitutes for a backpack. She smokes, swears and makes it clear that she wants something more out of life.
Cristina Panfilio is delightful, from the moment she takes off her red velvet coat in Frank’s office. The actress does an admirable job of capturing the cadences and phrases of her character’s Liverpool roots. Then, as she matures intellectually, Rita’s speech becomes more refined. Her subsequent outfits, too, become more subdued and classic as the play progresses.
While Frank is the catalyst for this transition, he isn’t always pleased with the results. He doesn’t want to grind down Rita’s enthusiasm and her forthright views. He fears she might lose these unique characteristics in order to fit in with the bland middle class. Disdainful of his own past as a failed poet and hack of a teacher, he also fears (almost imperceptibly) that she will pass him up. He sinks lower and lower into the bottle, until his superiors can no longer ignore his actions.
A production of Educating Rita cannot succeed without the right chemistry between the two characters. Thankfully, Smoots and Panfilio are superior in expressing this delicate dance between teacher and student. The current production also emphasizes Rita’s upbeat future, heightening the play’s comic aspects.
Production values are memorable, especially the realistic set that makes Frank’s office look as handsome as a library in a private club. Rita’s cleverly designed costumes are noteworthy as well. Each outfit visibly takes her from tacky to trendy.
There’s no doubt that Educating Rita earns high marks as a funny, smart and enjoyable experience.