By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
Into an office walks a woman, off the street, and asks a professor to make her a cultured lady. If that sounds a lot like Pgymalion, or its musical cousin My Fair Lady, by George, you’ve got it.
In the case of Educating Rita, in a lovely, crisp production that opened Tuesday night at Hedgerow Theatre, the story’s a little tweaked. Rita is a hairdresser in Liverpool who’s sung enough pub songs to begin singing to herself “Is That All There Is?” She’s determined to find out.
So she heads off to the University of Liverpool to try open class — a British program with a tutor who can prepare you for exams to get into the university fulltime, if that’s your goal. Her tutor: an aging alcoholic and failed poet who’d rather be in the pubs Rita is trying to escape.
Each will end up teaching the other. The street-smart brazen student will alter her natural spirit to meet the required detached academic mode of assessment. He will gain that spirit in the exchange. Whether they both live happily ever after is not the point; whether their lives are enlarged, is.
You can write the story yourself as soon as you’re into the second scene, but probably not as well as British playwright Willy Russell, whose Educating Rita was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and premiered in London in 1980 with Julie Walters in the title role. Three years later, she went on to play it in the movies, with Michael Caine.
Some plays are merely talky; Educating Rita is positively garrulous. But it has a big heart, pumping through many short scenes in two acts, in a play without a hint of sentimentality or artificial sweetener. In the Hedgerow production, so thoughtfully staged by producing artistic director Penelope Reed, the play is real life unfolding — constant chatter, disconnected thoughts swirling around, real people behind them.
Meredith Beck is Rita — a commoner in pigtails popping from a colorful knit cap, a buttock-length skirt and platform stilettos. In the first scene Beck stands mid-stage in a clueless pose, a kewpie doll who time-sped through puberty. (Beck has the perfect look, and the legs for all the short-bottomed costumes she wears.) She plays Rita like a great navigator — you can see the young woman transform, gradually, with each scene, until she reaches her end point fully realized.
Beck has the perfect person to play off — the lanky Michael Hagan, whose rumpled, self-hating but serious character responds to her as if she’s a life force he’d only ever heard about. (She probably is.) Hagan plays tipsy very well, but he also comes across when he’s a real teacher — and, like Rita, a naif.
Cheers to Cathie Miglionico’s costume design; I stopped counting Rita’s between-scene clothing changes at seven, and her prof changes, too. The entire story plays out on Zoran Kovcic’s handsome, woody university office set but in fact, it plays out in aspirations far beyond that room.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, firstname.lastname@example.org, or #philastage on Twitter.
Educating Rita: Presented by Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Rd., Rose Valley, near Media, through March 11. Tickets: $22-$29. Information: 610-565-4211 or www.hedgerowtheatre.org.