SALT LAKE CITY — My husband, son, and I had the pleasure of seeing Educating Rita presented by the Pinnacle Acting Company in Midvale on Saturday night. This isn’t the first Pinnacle production I’ve reviewed. I sincerely believe it won’t be the last. I love their work. It’s almost a no-brainer to review these shows. I am tempted to just write two things: (1) This show is great. (2) Go see it. If I did that, I would be done with this review. But I really do want to tell you why you should go see this show.
The play takes place in England, where Susan, who calls herself Rita, takes a college course to improve herself. Her tutor is Dr. Frank Bryant, an English professor who takes the teaching gig to pay for the copious amounts of alcohol he drinks. Rita is young-ish (32); Frank is much older. But they form a symbiotic bond that evolves during the year in which the play takes place.
Educating Rita is a delight on many levels. There are several sincere laughs, thanks to the witty British humor. But as Rita sheds her lowly beginnings and is introduced to the mindset of the more educated, classy college students she aspires to be, she tells the audience a lot about not just her life, but our own as well. There is a lot of philosophizing in this show.
For me, the play afforded me the opportunity to reflect about my own collegiate experience. Rita has a yearning desire to better herself, and as she does, she leaves her job as a hairdresser (all her clients are “dead boring”) and her working class husband behind. When I went to college, it was as a single parent, and I remember having the same drive and craving as Rita. I wanted to feel as if I’d “arrived” into the world of the sophisticated and refined. I’m not sure that graduating from college brought me all I’d hoped. Similarly, Rita was somewhat disillusioned that her education wasn’t a panacea for all her woes.
The relationship between Frank and Rita is an interesting one. I, the hopeless romantic, hoped they would get together, in spite of their age differences and his debilitating alcoholism. In a nutshell, Rita was as helpful and valuable to Frank as he was to her. She was more real, honest, and upfront with him than anyone he’d ever encountered before. Or at least, he allowed her into his life in a way he hadn’t permitted anyone before. When Frank describes why his former relationships dissolved, with his wife “because of poetry,” and his live-in girlfriend “because of eggs” (she likes them, he does not), Rita calls him on this. When she enters Frank’s life, she doesn’t know how to think critically, and he shows her that not everything has to be thought of in a subjective sense only. They displayed a synchronous cooperation that seemed almost miraculous in its utter rightness. However, as Rita became more at ease in the college milieu, Frank did as much as he could to hold her back. He liked her innocence and zest for life. So in essence, it was him she needed to overcome, as well as her lack of education and confidence.
Micheal Flynn as Frank and Melanie Nelson as Rita are superb. They are able to progress from their awkward but intriguing student-mentor relationship to a comfortable, sometimes bickering friendship. Nelson makes the transition from uneducated Rita to a refined, but still loving, caring Rita/Susan with grace and talent. I will say, I’d hoped for a stronger, more guttural accent from her at the beginning, but she still was completely believable, and I say this as someone who’s lived in England. Flynn is magnificent and so detailed and realistic he makes me a little dizzy. As he begins to crumble when Rita starts to outgrow him, I felt his pain so personally I felt like weeping. Nobody likes to be left behind. But the scene where Frank comes to his office drunk utterly transfixed me. Flynn was able to become drunk Frank within a few seconds during a lightning fast scene change. It was a marvelous agony to watch. These two actors had amazing chemistry and watching them perform was a delight.
There is some salty language, as is appropriate from a woman who’s been raised in a lower class environment, but Nelson handled it so cannily. I may be wrong, but she seemed to slightly lower her voice and speed through the few F-words she uttered. I admit, I liked that.
The only real downside to the show was there were a very few patrons in the audience. This is a real shame. I don’t know how to encourage people to go see this show any more than writing a glowing review, so that is what I’m doing. Pinnacle has done it again with an amazing performance of an important show with relevant messages and themes. As I said at the beginning, go see it.