Life is the lesson in 'Educating Rita'

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Life is an educational experience, and everyone we meet is part of a series of lessons through which we learn about others and ourselves. That’s the premise driving “Educating Rita,” which continues Milwaukee’s Renaissance Theaterworks’ 2012-13 season starting Jan. 18.

The 1980 play by British author Willy Russell concerns the relationship that develops between Liverpool hairdresser Rita (Cristina Panfilio) and her tutor Dr. Frank Bryant (Jonathan Smoots) after Rita enrolls in the U.K.’s Open University, the nontraditional school in which Frank teaches.

Rita wants to escape her working-class roots, convinced an education will open doors and show her worlds that go beyond Friday night pub dates with her mates. Frank, a cynical lifelong academic and alcoholic, accepts the tutorial relationship to pay for his drink. But both characters in this two-member cast get something entirely different than they anticipated, says director Jenny Wanasek.

“The play really explores the dynamics and chemical attraction between the characters despite the significant difference in age,” says Wanasek, who also teaches applied theater techniques at UWM’s Peck School of the Arts.  “Rita breathes a life into Frank that he certainly didn’t expect.”

In addition to teaching at UWM, Wanasek co-owns Milwaukee’s Center for Applied Theatre with her husband, UWM theater professor Dr. Mark Weinberg. Both were students of Augusto Boal, the late Brazilian theater director and political activist who founded the Theatre of the Oppressed.

Russell adapted “Educating Rita,” originally commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Co., for a 1983 film version starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine. Although the movie received a Best Picture nod from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, critics were lukewarm to negative about the screenplay, which Russell stretched to include numerous lesser characters. The core narrative and major points, however, remained the same.

Russell’s play, in which Rita studies English literature, challenges the English class system and the shortcomings of institutionalized education while exploring the dynamics of marriage and human relationships. The mentor-mentee arrangement between Frank and Rita borrows from George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” which was also the source for “My Fair Lady.”

But the characters can also be traced to archetypes from Greek mythology, and they can still be found in today’s classrooms, Wanasek says.

“Rita’s character is delightfully effervescent and appeals to me as a woman,” Wanasek says. “I have a Rita in one of my classes and think of her every time I direct a scene from the play.”

Frank exposes Rita to the works of Ibsen, Yeats and E.M. Forster. She takes on the pretensions of the university community, something that angers Frank, because she doesn’t know how to behave in a world of which she’s never been part, Wanasek says.

“He offers her different ways to live and to look at things,” Wanasek says. “He allows her to see herself in new ways and gives her chances he doesn’t realize she doesn’t already have.”

What Rita does have going for her is a love of life and youthful optimism that Frank has long since lost. The surprising denouement illustrates how both characters have progressed throughout the play that, while amusing, is anything but a straight-up comedy, Wanasek says.

“This is much more than a comedy,” she says. “The narrative questions the value of education, who deserves to experience it and at what cost to your sense of the personal culture from which you came.”

Renaissance Theaterworks will close its 2012-13 season with Athol Fugard’s “The Road to Mecca.” The production, directed by Suzan Fete and starring Jonathon Gillard Daly, Melinda Pfundstein and Linda Stephens, runs April 5–28.

On stage

 Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of Willy Russell’s “Educating Rita” runs at The Studio Theatre in Milwaukee’s Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, from Jan. 18 to Feb. 10. For more details, go to www.r-t-w.com.