Theatre Northwest, Tacoma’s newest professional company, is back at Theatre on the Square with “Educating Rita” this weekend and next. I saw last Friday’s opening, and here’s what I thought.
For a two-person play, the Theatre Northwest production of "Educating Rita" made a fine solo show. Despite excellent production values and mostly good direction, the acting was intensely lopsided, resulting in a play that was only half as enjoyable as it could have been.
This 1980 reversal of the Pygmalion myth is now standard repertoire, and deservedly—it’s a good story. Working-class but smart (and brutally honest) hairdresser Rita takes literature lessons from disillusioned, alcoholic professor Frank, and as her star rises, his falls, with everyone’s prejudices dissected en route.
As Rita, Casi Wilkerson began rather too caffeinatedly nervous, but engaging nevertheless. After the first few scenes she hit her stride: direct, funny, likeable, passionate. Holding up through Willy Russell’s rather self-conscious lines she delivered with conviction, including great timing on the academic jokes (Frank: "Have you seen Chekov in the theater?" Rita: "No, does he go?") But it must have been a hard slog through the play’s three hours with so little support from Steve Manning, who played a Frank so sunk in depression as to be near-catatonic. Gruff and grumpy, Frank was boring as well as bored, taking his phlegmatic time with responses and stumbling over several lines.
It’s a pity, as the dynamic intensity between these two opposing yet attracting characters is what sustains the play through its length. But instead of edgy flirtation and tension, there was tedium. Only in the pivotal drunk scene did Manning pull out the stops, before losing the tension again. Director Charlotte Tiencken, who otherwise held a good brisk tempo, could have pulled Frank out from behind his desk and restrained some of Rita’s frantic to-ing and fro-ing.
On the other hand, "Rita" made lovely eye candy. Designer Kurt Walls and charge artist Kim Izenman created a beautiful Oxbridge don’s study, all tweed and faded red book covers, with a frieze of voluptuous Rubenesque women suggestively lit during scene changes. Costume designer Alex Lewington had a great time with the ever-more-enlightened Rita, garbing her in each scene with a fun array of ’80s trash (love the red parachute jacket,) ’70s hippie-peasant, late ’70s Vogue (leather trench-coat) and a final ’80s air-stewardess look for the finished, educated product. Only the endlessly trite matching of movements from Vivaldi’s "Four Seasons" to each scene marred the excellent production quality.
After three hours of one-sided action and way too much cigarette smoke, the funny ending comes not a moment too soon. It also has to be asked whether this play, with all its English class angst, ’80s education-crisis references and clunky philosophy, is the right choice for Tacoma at the moment. Yet Theatre Northwest’s "Educating Rita" is still enjoyable. Just focus on Rita.
Theatre Northwest’s "Educating Rita" runs 7:30 p.m. May 22, 23, 29, 30; and 3 p.m. May 30 at Theatre on the Square, 915 Broadway, Tacoma. Tickets: $22/$34. 253-591-5894, www.broadwaycenter.org