by Beki Pineda

EDUCATING RITA – Written by Willy Russell; Directed by Lynne Collins.  Produced by the Arvada Center (6901 Wadsworth, Arvada) through November 11.  Tickets available at 720-898-7200 or arvadacenter.org.

This two person play is a working class version of PYGMALION or MY FAIR LADY (if you like the story with music) with the roles reversed. Instead of Higgins seeking out someone to teach, Frank in this play is already a disillusioned teacher with his first student assigned to him through the Open University system. Instead of being a reluctant student, Susan (a working class hairdresser who calls herself Rita after her favorite author, Rita Mae Brown) embraces learning and rushes headlong into her first English Literature class. Her brash unpolished approach to the wonders of the literary world are a warm breeze against Frank’s alcoholic cheek. Her fresh approach to the material, unfettered by the opinions of the “learned,” pleases and revitalizes him.

Watching Rita grow is the joy for both the audience and Frank. However, after a summer school session in London, she comes back with a new confidence in her own abilities bordering on cockiness and arrogance. Frank sees her turning into the typical elite university student he has taught for years with their boilerplate pronouncements and opinions-by-rote. He tries to walk the fine line between squashing her originality and teaching her how to pass the tired and classical exams she will need to move into the next stage of her education. Of course, their relationship changes through the years of her tutelage; while edging toward romance, it never really crosses the line as it matures into the best kind of friendship. With bumps along the way. One sweet thing Frank did every time he knew Rita was coming: there was an electric tea pot on his back table. He would check his watch, turn on the tea pot and wait. Then when Rita arrived, she automatically went to the table and poured herself a cup of tea and ate his bisquits. A small but thoughtful act that indicated with clarity the bond that had grown between them

What a pairing of actors! John Hutton is a familiar and much appreciated actor for all those who have attended the Denver Center through the years. While many of us will remember his Iago from OTHELLO or his KING LEAR, the role that comes to mind when I think of John’s many comic and dramatic personas is that of Robert in BLUE/ORANGE. He played a psychiatrist who had the powers of freedom or incarceration over a patient. Have never forgotten that steely eyed doctor. So how wonderful to see John embrace the sadness, joy and growth of Frank.

And Emily Van Fleet!  can forget her riveting work in THE DROWNING GIRLS at the Arvada Center and THE WILD PARTY for the Denver Center? What a year that was for Emily. Now she embraces this working class hairdresser with gusto and energy. Her Liverpool accent is impeccable and her journey through the perils of education is authentic. Of course she has the best lines with John relegated to straight man, but she delivers them with enthusiastic innocence and honesty.

Brian Mallgrave’s university office for Frank is beautifully designed and dressed. I loved the use of a slot in the door for the delivering of essays to continually remind us that this was after all a school. The costumes designed by Nicole Watts depict not only the passing years but the refining of Rita’s taste and maturity. Shadows and darkened rooms are used effectively at the beginning and ending of each scene with the rain and snow effect outside the window showing the years passing by without comment. Another lovely theatre evening at the Arvada Center.

A WOW factor of 8.5!!