Dr. Frank Bryant is a self-loathing English literature professor who could challenge Hemingway any day of the week in the art of drinking scotch. Susan "Rita" White is a hairdresser with dreams of being cultured and knowing what type of wine to take to a dinner party. In Willy Russell's Educating Rita, presented by Midtown/Sheri Grace Productions at the Charleston Acting Studio, a relationship that first appears to be like oil and water becomes symbiotic between two starving souls.
A professor at Open University in northern England, Frank is middle-aged, estranged from his wife, and living with a former student. He's given up on his poetry, his students, and himself and is unknowingly starving to give a damn about something. Young, married, and bored, Rita is starving for intellectual stimulation and self-discovery and sets out to get an education. Educating Rita is an updated version of Pygmalion, but without George Bernard Shaw's bitter ending.
Frank and Rita both experience rebirth and the accompanying growing pains. Cynical Frank is amused by Rita's openness and charm. She is innocent, but not naïve — she knows pornography masked as religious art when she sees it — and her effervescence brings Frank out of his self-imposed pit of hopelessness. Although formally uneducated, Rita's natural aptitude and intuition intrigue Frank. She hangs on his every word — that is, until she finds her own. Their individual personal lives take a toll, but with long-term rewards. As Frank begins to let down his guard, Rita becomes an alien in her own life and discovers an intellectual and social world that heretofore was unavailable to her.
Under Jo Ellen Aspinwall's direction, Nat Jones and Teralyn Tanner play Frank and Rita with compassion and humor. Jones portrays Frank as likeable but clearly flawed and possibly tragic. His caustic condescension is obviously a front. Jones overplays Frank's jealousy a bit, but his full-blown anger is organic. Tanner brings a unique quality to Rita. Outgoing, bright, and hungry, Tanner gives Rita wit and dimension. Rita is simple, but not simple-minded. She's uneducated, but not ignorant. Her character comes full circle in her development, partly due to the playwright and partly due to the director, but mostly because Tanner brings nuance to Rita's transformation.
Set entirely in Frank's disheveled office, Russell structures the play with many short scenes, a challenge for costume designers. Logistics like costume changes can slow down a production's pace and energy. Kristen Bushey's costumes reflect the characters' personalities, but long scene changes and sloppy costume changes distract from the play's focus. A rumpled college professor is not out of place, but a hairdresser would not leave the house wearing a messy ponytail or bushy hair pulled back by a headband. A couple of mishaps are forgivable, because the actors pull the focus back to the action of the play.
The two-act play runs approximately two hours, 20 minutes, which would be hardly noticeable if it were not for the awkwardly angled pews at the theater. It's an intimate space — code for small — which can be an asset, especially for thoughtful productions such as Educating Rita and Proof, from their previous season. Nevertheless, stiff necks and backs are a small chiropractic price to pay for an enjoyable performance.