Chicago Theatre Review
By Your Pupils You’ll Be Taught
Educating Rita – Citadel Theatre
Besides Cinderella, is there any other story in all of antiquity that’s served more as a source for novels, movies, plays and musicals than the Greek myth of Pygmalion and Galatea? It’s the classic tale of the artist (or, in this case, the teacher) who falls in love with his work of art (or student). George Bernard Shaw didn’t even disguise that influence with his 1913 hit play entitled Pygmalion,” which in turn was adapted into the classic musical, “My Fair Lady.” There’s also Neil LaBute’s “The Shape of Things,” and popular films like “Pretty Woman,” “Trading Places,” “She’s All That” and “The Duff.” But back in 1980 British playwright Willy Russell created his own version of the story in his two-handed comic drama, “Educating Rita.” The play eventually reached larger audiences in 1983 when it was adapted for the silver screen and starred Michael Caine and Julie Walters.
The story concerns Susan, a 26-year-old beautician from Liverpool, who calls herself Rita. She’s chosen that name in honor of author Rita Mae Brown, author of her favorite novel, Rubyfruit Jungle. Dissatisfied with her mundane existence, Rita enrolls in a literature course at the local college, offered by the Open University. She harbors great hopes of improving her mind and expanding her circle of friends with her newly-developed intellect.
The play opens in the minutes before Rita first meets Frank, her tutor. We first come to know this surly, middle-aged, alcoholic instructor and would-be poet as he’s frantically searching his office for a hidden bottle of scotch. Frank accepts the tutorial position in order to fund his extracurricular pub crawling. The two have an immediate effect on each other. Frank is moved by Rita’s spunk, vitality and her determination to improve her mind and station in life. Rita finds Frank’s teaching, not only instructive, but motivational and confidence-building. He also poses a personal challenge to her, as she attempts to ween him off the bottle and back among the living. The months pass and these two opposites start to attract. Soon, however, Frank notices that Rita’s fresh, unique attitude has evolved into the same kind of superficial intellectual snobbiness that he’s come to despise. That’s when everything begins to really change.
Mark E. Lococo makes his welcome directorial return to the Citadel Theatre, following last season’s excellent “Other Desert Cities.” A Professor at Chicago’s Loyola University, Mr. Lococo brings his own personal understanding of the collegiate experience, along with his knowledge of student and instructor relationships. With a contained energy, he’s gently guided and motivated his two talented actors on their individual journeys toward self-discovery.
Mr. Lococo’s production is finely supported by his artistic technical team. He wisely uses every inch of Eric Luchen’s gorgeously detailed and authentic-looking set to its full advantage. Possibly one of the finest scenic designs ever to grace this stage, the darkly paneled room is completely walled from floor to ceiling with bookshelves, burying the characters inside a cavern of books. The action is overlooked by a vast, beveled glass window, enveloped in heavy draperies, so as to keep out the light of the academic world. David Lundholm’s carefully selected fashions and wigs work as a visual metaphor depicting Rita’s gradual progress toward becoming Susan, once again. The costumer has outfitted Frank in suitably less impressive tweedy coats and trousers, as befitting of this stodgy professor.
Equity actor Si Osborne appears completely at home as Frank. With a resume that reads like a gazetteer of Chicago theatres, Mr. Osborne brings his considerable experience and carefully honed talent to this role. At first pessimistic and less than interested in educating anyone, his Frank gradually evolves into a likable human being. As he becomes less dependent upon alcohol and more interested in his student, we see Osborne blossom through Rita’s influence. It proves the old adage that a teacher, by his pupils, will be taught. Jess Thigpen, who’s had featured roles at Shattered Globe, Provision and TimeLine Theatres, is an absolute delight as Rita. It comes as no surprise to the audience that Frank’s immediately captivated by this lovely girl’s enthusiasm for learning and her joie de vivre. As Ms. Thigpen’s character evolves into the confident, educated young woman she was destined to become, she grows more and more fascinating and alluring. By the end of the play, with her transformation complete, she’s also brought Frank out of his musty shell and ready to enter into the light, to embark upon his own education.
Under Mark Lococo’s expert direction that teams up two exciting, talented local actors, this play ranks as one of the Citadel’s finest productions in its 13 year history. There’s not much action, as might be expected of a play set in a college classroom, and the accents may at first be daunting to some. But, thanks to dialect coach Catherine Gillespie, as well as the competent work turned in by these two wonderful actors, “Educating Rita” is music to the ear. And supported by a staff of superb technical artists, this production is a feast for the eye, as well. This production is must-see entertainment that will leave audiences smiling, laughing and in love with a fascinating, charming young girl who once called herself Rita.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 12-March 13 by Citadel Theatre Company, 300 S. Waukegan Rd., Lake Forest, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 847-735-8554 or by going to www.citadeltheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com