WEAKLY RITA

Education is more than it's cracked up to be. And while Educating Rita, now at the Denver Civic Theatre, suggests the traditional ingestion and regurgitation approach can be improved upon, it never says how. Playwright Willy Russell's effort may be fun to watch, especially with such engaging actors, but its vision is a tad stunted.

But then, the educational process is difficult to dramatize. The best attempts have all been in the movies--including the 1983 film version of Educating Rita. Films like Stand and Deliver are about teachers inspiring youth to want to learn, rather than about the glorious and sometimes difficult process of acquiring learning. So Educating Rita's refreshingly different approach to education appeals to the trapped spirit within us all. The tedium and the discipline required by learning are at least fully implied as the more mundane issues of the story unfold.

Russell offers us an English working-class heroine who really wants to learn, drinking up every important poet, every work of literature she is taught to revere. She reads three novels a week and thinks of ingenious answers to boring academic questions--and all under the tutelage of her alcoholic, middle-aged professor who, tediously enough, falls in love with his pretty, and married, 26-year-old pupil.

The professor, Frank, drinks because he can't write anymore. When airhead Rita breezes into his office, all nervous energy, high spirits and higher aspirations, he is amused, then charmed, then smitten. After half a life teaching privileged nincompoops against their wills, a woman who wants to learn is a small miracle--maybe enough to reclaim his life. Maybe not.

Rita continues to bounce off the walls while discovering the world of high culture. Her wonder at suddenly comprehending a difficult intellectual concept is palpable, and most of us remember moments of discovery like this.

But what does Rita want to do with all this elaborate cultivation? Directors Michael R. Duran (who also stepped in to play Frank when the original actor had to drop out) and Lucy Roucis demonstrate Rita's progress toward high culture with progressively more "tasteful" costumes. She starts out in tight, garishly flowered pants and enormous daisy earrings and ends up in luxurious, expensive suede and silk. Each stage of her dynamic change makes us smile.

Frank, however, becomes progressively more worried. The fresh young mind he first encountered is turning into something of a monster--an "educated woman," after all, can trade her passion for learning for something perilously close to respectability.

Anyone who is or has been involved in education will recognize the sudden joy that comes in sharing with a responsive student some wonderful idea or stroke of genius. Anyone honest will also recognize that moment of despair when the teacher wonders what it's all for--to produce another efficient cog in the corporate wheel or another cultured consumer for the arts industry?

Rita tells us that her education has given her a choice. Sounds okay at first. But on reflection, choice is not enough. Neither Rita nor the self-indulgent professor ever thinks through what is missing from either education or his/her life--and the closing scenes feel anticlimactic.

But that's not the actors' fault. It may take a moment to warm to Juliet Smith as Rita. Her nervous energy seems so unfocused, it's a bit hard to believe at first. But little by little, she makes Rita real. Her mobile features are continually expressive of Rita's highs and lows, her joy and anger. We want to see her set free--if only Russell had some sort of grasp on what that might mean.

Duran's Frank is stiff and straightforward--not enough nuance in the emotional range. Yet he does manage to disturb us when Frank comes on to Rita, making that crucial moment work. The men in Rita's life, whether a jealous husband or a sensitive teacher, have tried to hold her back--unfortunately, so does Russell's script.

 
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