Educating Rita by Willy Russell, Ottawa Little Theatre, Directed by Sterling Lynch
Educating Rita always brings back memories. Not only do visions of Julie Walters and Michael Caine in the 1983 movie version or outstanding performances in previous stage productions of Willy Russell’s 1980 Pygmalion-like tale come to mind, but I flash back to thoughts of Janet — a classmate of mine, briefly, in the UK in the 1950s.
Like Rita, Janet was exceptionally intelligent and from a working-class background. After passing her 11+ examination, (taken at the age of 10 – don’t ask) she was accepted in a prestigious out-of-zone grammar school. Before the end of her first semester, she withdrew and entered a mediocre school close to home, where, she said, she had friends and felt she fitted in with her own kind.
That move certainly assured escape from the accusation of betrayal that Rita’s husband and family levelled at her when her overpowering thirst for knowledge led her to fight her way out of intellectual stagnation. When she enrolled at the Open University (probably a move that would be financially out of range for someone in her income bracket today) and studied literature, she was no longer at ease with them, but was not yet a comfortable fit in the academic world or her tutor’s social class.
Frank, the tutor, was also a misfit. Drenched in alcohol and self-pity, only the fact that he was a tenured professor prevented the university from firing him rather than exiling him to Australia.
As Rita’s sparkle and originality reawaken some of Frank’s love of learning, he guides her in the ways of academia, afraid that as she becomes more educated and fits into the academic mould, she will lose herself and her unique style.
The Ottawa Little Theatre production, directed by Sterling Lynch, adeptly captures the tension between Rita’s gains and losses and displays the power shift between student and professor both by having her take over his desk and by the increasing confidence of her manner.
As Frank, Mike Kennedy (who stepped into the role at the last minute) is endearing and very effective as the disheveled, bumbling, bitter and vulnerable tutor. Allison Haley provides the appropriate degree of contrast and delivers a clear picture of her building excitement as she learns and her understanding grows with her education.
Lynch has wisely decided against having the cast attempt different English dialects. Instead, Haley’s regional Maritime accent and Kennedy’s standard Canadian provide the necessary language markers.
Although Haley’s characterization is quite effective, it would be more convincing had she been directed to look at Frank more of the time, when she is talking to him, rather than playing directly to the audience. The other irritant in her presentation is that Lynch has not persuaded her to avoid almost constant flapping of her arms as she speaks.
The set by Rachel Hauraney gives the general impression of dusty academia, although even an alcoholic professor on the way out is likely to keep his library in better order than the sloppy mess displayed. This man has not completely lost his love of books.
The OLT production of Educating Rita continues to October 7.
Director: Sterling Lynch
Set: Rachel Hauraney
Lighting: Larry Davies
Sound: Kenny Hayes
Costumes: Peggy Campbell