"Waste not" seems to be Palm Beach Dramaworks' mantra this year. Willy Russell's 1980 Educating Rita, which opened in Dramaworks' Clematis theater last week in an all-around sweetly provocative show, is the third in what can be described only as the company's 2005-06 "mentor" series. All have been produced on richly designed sets that, from play to play, have reused and recycled a brown-out world of wood paneling and bookshelves from That Championship Season's creepy Victorian parlor to the sullen rectory of Hand of God to, finally, the ivory tower office of Educating Rita's drunken literature professor.
To be honest, how many wood-paneled plays about mentors can even the most compliant theatergoer take? Looking ahead, PBD's final play of the season, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which might be characterized as awry "mentorship" between two dysfunctional couples, opens in May. Hmm, maybe, just for Albee, one more night in a caustic wood-entrapped space might be survivable.
For now, though, with Educating Rita, the tale of upper-crust English professor Frank (Dan Leonard) mentoring lower-class literary wannabe Rita (Claire Tyler), Dramaworks director Nanique Gheridian sends you into a supposedly well-recognized Pygmalion paradigm.
But Educating Rita, especially for those of us with Pygmalion-aversion, shying away from seeing the 1983 Michael Caine film version of the play, is not as My Fair Lady as you might think. It's really more of a coming-of-age love story about literature than a tale of social class hopping.
As Rita, Tyler is of course the play's center, expected to fully elevate every one of her Liverpudlian low-brow responses to the high-brow world from which she begs acceptance ("You're gonna bleedin' well teach me," she tells her mentor). There's something familiar about Tyler's accent despite her playbill note thanking her dialect coach. Like her Welsh accent as Bethan in last year's Pull of Negative Gravity at the Mosaic Theatre, it nebulously places her somewhere in the geographical box formed by latitudes 51N/55N and longitudes 12W/4E. In other words, her voice definitely comes from somewhere in the United Kingdom, but it's not clear exactly where.
It doesn't really matter, though, because Tyler is Rita, full of an energy that sucks you in and a representation that makes her character completely alive. In the role of the jaded professor, Dan Leonard plays off Tyler with skill and confidence. But this production is Tyler's show, and she fully takes control.
Through the pair's evolving relationship, with yeoman's work by costume designer Morgan Lane-Tanner that frames Rita's conversion from leather miniskirt to, at the end, elegant frock, the scholar and the hairdresser together fill out a literary friendship we sad sacks may only dream of as we make our weekly pilgrimages to browse the "new releases" table at Barnes and Noble.
Educating Rita, though, isn't really about Frank and Rita. It's about Rita and literature. In about a dozen lessons, Rita goes from hairdresser to skilled critic of D.H. Lawrence and William Blake, much to the consternation of Frank, who falls for her and wants to preserve her high spirit unsullied by the machinations of his overbearing world of literary criticism. But Frank can't stop her. Nobody can.
Ultimately, the transfer of playwright Russell's 1980 drama to our 2006 table is not Pygmalion but a reflection of the natural transition in the evolution of any book lover. Early in the play, Rita reflects on obstacles in her quest. "If I'd started takin' school seriously, I would have had to become different from me mates, an' that's not allowed," she explains.
Not to sound mawkish, but people who love books at some point, sometimes bravely like Rita, must leave behind childish things as the thrill of discovery forces them to make leaps of thinking that have absolutely nothing to do with class. It doesn't matter if you're in Broward Community College or the Sorbonne. At some point, you leave behind Sounder and Johnny Tremain for Macbeth (as Rita discovers in the play) with its "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury."
This Shakespearean phrasing naturally leads to discovering the Compton family in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, which then leads to Faulkner's Light in August or Absalom, Absalom, and then to other Southern American writers. Next thing you know, you're googling "Carson McCullers" and stuffing Walker Percy's The Moviegoer into your knapsack, gratefully trapped in literature.
It's inevitable. The strong and inquisitive Rita would be doing it with or without Frank. Yes, of course, he's there guiding her. But a true lesson from Educating Rita is that, if you're brave enough, you'll find the good books regardless of the obstacles along the way, with or without wood paneling and stuffy mentors.