Arts & Culture

Cambria’s Pewter Plough Playhouse explores thirst for knowledge with ‘Educating Rita’

University professor Frank (Gene Strohl) tutors hairdresser Rita (Toni Young) in “Educating Rita,” playing at the Pewter Plough Playhouse in Cambria.
University professor Frank (Gene Strohl) tutors hairdresser Rita (Toni Young) in “Educating Rita,” playing at the Pewter Plough Playhouse in Cambria.

A woman’s thirst for knowledge and an older professor’s thirst for booze blend comedy with pathos in “Educating Rita” at the Pewter Plough Playhouse in Cambria. Rebecca Buckley directs this delightful, smooth-running play by Willy Russell.

Professor Frank (Gene Strohl) is sitting quietly in his Open University office when Rita (Toni Young) storms in, talking a mile a minute. Tired of her own ignorance, the married hairdresser has finally worked up the nerve to attend the Liverpool college.

As a tutor, Frank is neither welcoming nor encouraging. The failed poet has grown weary with academia and doesn’t understand why anyone would choose to pursue it.

Rita, however, will not be deterred. She’s eager to uncover the deeper meanings in literature, poetry, drama and even ballet before life passes her by. A far cry from the timid type, the outspoken Rita is a sharp contrast to the sedate Frank. She’s loud, brassy, bursting with questions and fueled by nervous energy.

Frank reluctantly agrees to tutor her, and pads to a bookcase — not to select a book, but to retrieve a hidden bottle of hooch. Rita joins him in having a taste occasionally, but she eventually becomes concerned about his drinking, and as they become friends, she nags him to quit.

During Rita’s frequent visits, she grouses about her clients, mocking their ignorance and shallowness. She has no one to discuss even the best-sellers with, let alone literature.

Ultimately, Rita and Frank each get an education, as will many audience members. It isn’t necessary to understand all of the literary references, but knowing them enriches the experience of Russell’s intelligent script.

Russell didn’t have to frequent beauty salons to pen “Educating Rita” in 1980. He was a hairdresser for six years before he returned to college, so he has an inside knowledge of the working class as well as the upper classes of academia.

“Educating Rita” is loosely based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play “Pygmalion,” which became the basis of the 1956 Broadway musical “My Fair Lady” and the 1964 movie of the same name. In 1983, “Educating Rita” was made into a film starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters.

As Rita, Young’s energy on stage is as scintillating as static electricity. The role is such that she can’t help but upstage Strohl. This play is about Rita and her transformation; as Rita becomes more educated and exposed to culture, she is no longer the woman that Frank found refreshingly unique.

Young nails the Liverpudlian dialect as though it were her native tongue, and Strohl sustains the speech of the more privileged class throughout the two-act play, even when Frank is drunkenly slurring. Each of them flawlessly delivered the tremendous amount of dialog they had to memorize.

The action takes place in Frank’s office, which Buckley and Mike Brazelton designed as a tasteful study.

Other aspects of the Pewter Plough Playhouse production need work.

The frequent black outs during costume or subtle scene changes become a bit annoying. And the music played during such times could be improved to reflect the time period or the mood.

Sarah Mosby took over as stage manager just a few days before opening night, so some things may change in future shows.

The acting, however, needs no improvement.

‘Educating Rita’

Pewter Plough Playhouse, 828 Main St., Cambria

7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday; through April 30

$17 to $22

805-927-3877 or www.pewterploughplayhouse.org

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