IF YOU GO
2267 1st Street, Fort Myers, FL
Florida Repertory Theatre closed their 2012-13 season Friday with a respectable, if unremarkable, production of "Educating Rita." Willy Russell's two-hander imagines a British college professor tutoring a lower-class student because she wants to know "everything." Both learn a lot!
Florida Rep ensemble member William McNulty returns as alcoholic poetry don Frank. Jessica Wortham makes her Florida Rep debut as Rita.
The show explores classism, social barriers, the education system, alcoholism and interpersonal relationships. Also a virtual love letter to literature, "Educating Rita" name-drops writers and poets like William Blake, Anton Chekhov, T.S. Eliot, Henrik Ibsen and more. Shakespeare is, of course, quoted.
"Rita" also poses a second, more abstract question, one that doesn't have an easy answer. In removing Rita's rough edges, she gains an education. But does it devalue her brassy, fresh perspective? She's clever - but no longer unique.
Helmer Chris Clavelli hits a lot of sharp notes in his third directorial effort of the season after "Lend Me A Tenor" and the impeccable "Time Stands Still." His twosome delivers an impressive amount of action to Robert F. Wolin's expansive book-lined palatial professorial perch of a set.
Wortham leaps from desk to chair to huge dormer window to indiscreetly blow air up her skirt from a stationary fan. McNulty's more sedate Frank climbs stools and ladders hunting for books (or Scotch, hidden behind the Dickens. Their prickly relationship warms into a friendship - and the actors allow the audience to see that process bloom.
Clavelli expands on the theme of contrast within the show by deliberately playing with both pace and the actors' delivery. For McNulty, the "educated" character, he wants a calm, soft, soothing voice - the sound of sense and sensibility, as it were. For Wortham, he wants brash and loutish - the call of the wild.
I get the concept. I'm not sure I like it. Slowing McNulty down runs counter to the actor's natural intensity (witness "Red"); it both slows the show and hampers on-stage chemistry. Worse, it feels like the actors are running at two different speeds for most of the evening, making it difficult for both them and the audience to ever fall into a groove. It's no mistake the best scenes are the fastest and most intense.
Watch for a sublime moment late in the second act where - for a brief moment - Rita and Frank's poses mirror where they were seated earlier. The teacher has become the student, and the student is now the teacher. I love a lot of what Clavelli does in the show, but I wish "Educating Rita" moved faster, was a bit more subtle and could generate a bit more chemistry between its leads.
McNulty and Wortham make an appealing pair, although the purposefully mis-matched speeds at which they deliver their lines prevents much of a rhythm. McNulty's shell-shocked awe with which he regards the wondrous creature dumped on his office doormat amuses to no end, especially as Wortham rips off yarns of working in a hair salon or tossing off vulgarities.
Wortham fairly vibrates with all the raw, coltish energy of a caged canary, wings beating frantically in an effort to find freedom. The shifts from excited glee to wistful longing as she stares at grassy, picturesque lawns and tomes of poetry allow a window into her soul. I wish the accent didn't wander from Liverpool to Cockney London, especially as the show is specific.
As the play sees Rita visiting Frank each week for tutoring, rapid costume changes come into play. Folks could take lessons from this show. McNulty cleverly changes "outfits" by swapping any number of jackets, vests, sweaters hanging around his office. Wortham either layers or has dressers working magic with some of Roberta Malcolm's outfits.
I wish the clothing itself more accurately reflected Rita's working class background. Choices seem more boho hipster than the chav the character clearly represents. While I adore the gradual transformation of Rita's fashion sense (especially a gigantic white wrap and a series of too-cute coats), the character's clothes and shoes need to start much less classy.
"Rita" feels exactly like what it is: opening night of a layered script with the actors only starting to find both their characters and on-stage chemistry. While the show is good now; it will be great later in April.
I don't know my Blake from my Barrett Browning. Email me, firstname.lastname@example.org, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.