Willy Russell's chamber comedy about a young working-class hairdresser in Liverpool bent on self-improvement and the embittered middle-aged English professor who becomes her tutor in the "open university" program lands somewhere between the razor-sharp class observations of George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" (Russell's obvious model) and the soul-sickening academic gender wars of David Mamet's "Oleanna." But in Richard Corley's staging for Shattered Globe Theatre, the relationship between sassy Rita (Whitney White) and soused Frank (Brad Woodard) too often remains more theoretical than thrilling.
Some of the blame rests with Russell. The literary icons (E.M. Forester, Anton Chekhov and William Blake) the playwright employs as road markers for Rita's intellectual and emotional growth tend to serve as barriers to our investment in her relationship with Frank. And given that Frank already uses alcohol as a retreat from the world, the book talk adds another layer of contrivance. We can congratulate ourselves for getting the references, but I never quite believed that these authors had become life-changing totems for the ever-evolving Rita (who was christened Susan, but renames herself in honor of Rita Mae Brown's "Rubyfruit Jungle"). However, when the two connect in their own language and their own terms, as when Rita describes how "Everyone's caught up in the got-to-have game," in her working-class world, with consumerism filling the sad interior voids, the show finds a solid beating heart.
Russell updated his 1980 script in 2002, but other than Frank's laptop and the contemporary interstitial pop and hip-hop in Christopher Kriz's sound design, little feels different. (The 1983 film version, by necessity, opened up the story considerably by bringing in other characters and settings.)
But Corley's choice to cast a black actor as Rita is an interesting one. Though the script never addresses race, Rita's early conflict between wanting to better herself and her husband's vociferous opposition to her education carry uncomfortable echoes of debates about the role of education in black communities. The newly confident Rita accuses Frank, who is fearful of losing his control over her, of wanting to "keep your natives thick, because that way they still look charming and delightful," bringing the colonialist undertones of their relationship into sly focus.
On opening night, White seemed to still be finding her way in the part, but she brings a firecracker energy and a lovely, dynamic stage presence that makes it easy to see why Frank finds it hard to dismiss her outright, despite Rita's initial ditziness. Woodard has the more thankless task here. Frank's self-destructive decline feels inevitable, and the performance, except for a few emotional outbursts, stays at a world-weary waspish remove.
But as a humane portrait of the potential for one teacher, no matter how flawed, to change a life, "Educating Rita" has its heart in the right place.
When: Through Aug. 14
Where: Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes