Worlds collide in endearing production

‘Educating Rita’ is delight on metro-area stage


Surrounded by a large, polished wooden desk, cases filled with books, comfortable chairs and a window looking out on a campus lawn, all enhanced by subdued lighting, Frank (John Hutton), a professor and poet — who hasn’t written for some time — tries to remember which title conceals the Scotch … “Ah! There it is.” The entire stage in the Arvada Center’s Black Box Theatre is transformed into a rather classy academic’s office, with warm tones, polished dark wood — and a bit of clutter. It says “class.’

The doorknob rattles and someone knocks impatiently.

Enter Liverpudlian hairdresser Rita (Emily Van Fleet), a 26-year-old working-class woman who almost seems blown in by the wind. “I want to know everything ... I want to be able to understand …” she tells the startled academic with excitement. And she has enrolled in the Open University to be educated. “Susan is me real name, but I changed it to Rita,” she continues.

Her husband is not in favor of this move, she tells Frank, but she knows he loves her.

From the beginning, she hopes/is certain Frank will help her pass her first exam …

There’s some critical discussion of “Howard’s End” by E.M. Forster and a first assignment.

“I wish I could talk like that,” says a dazzled Rita.

A pattern is established, including ongoing conversations and a course of study, with regular papers floating through the slot in the door.

“My first wife left me,” Frank tells Rita … “I stopped writing altogether.” (He keeps on finding half-empty bottles of Scotch placed throughout the bookcase shelves.)

Rita replaces a neglected, dead plant in the office.

As the year progresses, Rita’s appearance, as well as her intellectual strength, improves as does her confidence. She visits theater and dance performances, attends summer school in London and a real conversation about Shakespeare’s comedy and tragedy ensues. Her marriage ends and Frank’s live-in partner, Julia, leaves him.

Papers continue to appear through the letter slot as Rita soaks up what he offers her like a sponge through the school year, putting her own spin on the topic at hand and getting interested in and acquainted with other students. He is concerned that her originality will disappear with ongoing study … “I don’t want to see you end up in a room like this,” he tells Rita.

In a later scene, we find Frank packing down his office — he’s invited to spend a sabbatical teaching in Australia. The door flies open and it’s Rita. “I came to tell you you’re a good teacher,” she tells him — “do you think you did nothing for me?”

“I tried to call you at the shop,” he says and she explains that she left the hair salon long ago … “Don’t you like me any more now that I’m educated? I’ve got what you have …”

The audience can speculate on whether there’s another act — Russell doesn’t give us one in this script.

These actors are both really so skilled and keep up the pace through a story that can trace back to the classical “Pygmalion” and up through the more contemporary “My Fair Lady” and “Pretty Woman” — and most recently, “A Star is Born.” Originally commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company. “Educating Rita” premiered in London in 1980 and was adapted by Russell for film in 1983. Russell also wrote “Shirley Valentine” and “Blood Brothers,” which is still playing in London’s West End.

We are so happy to see the Black Box Theatre Series start a second year at the Arvada Center under director Lynne Collins. Coming up in early 2019, performances by the repertory company: “Diary of Anne Frank,” “The Moors,” “Sin Street Social Club.” We welcome Hutton’s return to the area, since we so enjoyed his performances at Denver Center Theatre Company. And Van Fleet, who has appeared at Arvada Center and elsewhere, was just a delight to watch — and listen to!


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