‘Educating Rita’ at the Arvada Center goes deep on the lives of a professor and his student
In a musty, book-strewn office where time has apparently ground to a halt, Frank is having a mundane conversation with his girlfriend when his new pupil Rita enters as if shot out of a cannon.
So begins “Educating Rita,” a 1980 play by British playwright Willy Russell some may recall from the film version done a few years later with Michael Caine as Frank. In the capable hands of director Lynne Collins, this reboot at the Arvada Center reminds us why stories about teachers and pupils can be so compelling: It’s a handoff between generations, and in one-on-one settings, the initially one-way direction of knowledge from prof to pupil is eventually turned on its head as the student becomes the master.
Or something like that. “Educating Rita” is messy, like the lives it explores, and after getting to know Frank and Rita as well as we do, a clean and clear resolution was never in the cards. What Russell was after was the exploration of complex, universal themes — among them freedom, traditions and institutions, gender roles and, of course, learning.
As a monumentally jaded literature professor fixed in amber at an unnamed college in England, John Hutton is tremendous. It’s just the kind of role the veteran Denver actor can really sink his teeth into, and Hutton portrays Frank so convincingly it’s easy to imagine it taking him several hours after the final curtain to peel Frank off his psyche. Doing jaded isn’t particularly difficult for an actor of Hutton’s skill, but Frank has several more layers to explore. As a late-career professor who’s compelled to take on tutoring to fund his drinking habit, Frank still dreams of recapturing the spark of his earlier efforts at writing poetry.
In Rita, he finds that spark — if only for the briefest of moments. Rita, played with maximum cockney chirp and charm by Emily Van Fleet, is the eager yang to Frank’s morose yin. Part Eliza Dolittle with a dash of Ab-Fab, Fleet manages to portray Rita as charming and obnoxious at the same time. It’s a neat Fleet feat that keeps this long-ish play (two-and-a-half hours) engaging as the actress shows off her own impressive chops.
While Frank admits he’s rather smitten with her, Rita makes clear at the first sign of this that she’s not in the least bit interested. Frank doesn’t press the point, and thus sexual tension is mostly removed from the menu. That paves the way for the much more interesting transformation of Rita as an uneducated but bright young woman into the apt pupil Frank’s always dreamed of: someone who takes everything he says and applies it effectively and immediately. As Rita’s essays continue to drop through Frank’s mail slot, he sees her progress rapidly from gossipy hairdresser to university student eager to leave her old life behind.
Trouble is, Frank has grown to detest university life and all that surrounds it, and as Rita becomes more engaged in her new reality, he sees her slipping away. Her visits to his office grow fewer and further between, and he’s reduced to getting drunk and peering out the window awaiting her return. Outside the windows that won’t open, the seasons change and the houseplant she got him is now dead. The trove of knowledge Frank has accumulated over the years seems to weigh on him like guilt, while Rita’s growing accumulation of it has propelled her into the light.
There will be no saving Frank, whose drunken antics finally earn him banishment to the university’s Australia campus. What makes the ending of “Educating Rita” so endearing is the evolution of these two characters’ friendship. The final scene — where Rita’s sits Frank down to give him a haircut — is both a throwback to her old life and a helping hand for Frank to begin anew.
It’s as good as it gets for these two, and a comforting reminder that a simple kind gesture can sometimes paper over the most complex of situations.