An Education in Quality Theatre

Educating Rita

Melanie Nelson and Michael Flynn in Pinnacle Acting Company's production of Educating Rita

This past Friday night (February 10, 2012) reminded me why I love live theatre. It reminded me of the importance of great writing and experienced acting. Pinnacle Acting Company’s current production of Educating Rita by English playwright Willy Russell has both of those important qualities in spades. It is a play that I will no doubt still be thinking about for a long time to come.

Last month, when I got the assignment to review this show, I was excited because not only were my last two experiences watching shows at Pinnacle were both good ones but because one of my favorite local actress to watch—Melanie Nelson—was listed as one of the show’s two stars, but at the same time I didn’t know what to expect. I had never even heard of the play before. I did a search online and read up on it, but the premise (as told on Wikipedia) didn’t really excite me. According to the article, Educating Rita follows the relationship between a young working class hairdresser from Liverpool and Dr. Frank Bryant, a middle-aged university lecturer, during the course of a year. A couple days later I was watching a special feature on a DVD of an old Doctor Who episode called The Five Doctors and heard someone mention that Tom Baker had declined to be in the episode due in part to his involvement in a London based production of Educating Rita. The Wikipedia article on the play had not listed Baker in any of the first run productions, but now I thought back on the description of the plot the site had given and imagined the tall acerbic actor in the role of Frank—a middle-aged alcoholic career academic.

But that’s enough about my prep work and Doctor Who watching; let’s move this review to the part that matters: when I actually arrived at the theatre to review the show on Friday night.

I was greeted by the lovely April Fossen (also one of my favorite local actresses to watch), who along with husband Mark has recently joined Pinnacle Acting Company as a Producing Associate. After a warm greeting, April gave me a program and I went into the auditorium and found a seat right in the middle of all the rows. Happy that the program had large print (so I could leave my bothersome but recently much needed reading glasses in their case) I began my cursory inspection of the playbill, only to find myself perplexed by the director’s credit. Where normally one would expect to find the name of an individual person, it instead read: “Directed by Pinnacle Acting Company”. So no sooner had I just sat down than I was back in the lobby asking April Fossen to explain to me what this meant. She wasn’t surprised by the question and graciously explained the matter to me. It seems that the original director had left the show (I am not enough of an investigative journalist or a snoop to have tried to learn the person’s identity or reason for leaving the production) and instead of searching for a replacement, a team of three people stepped in, each on different nights, to direct the show.

These brave souls were April and husband Mark, as well as Pinnacle’s Artistic Director, Jared Larkin. I jokingly imagined that process to be like the relay races at the Olympics where each runner races a certain distance and then hands the baton onto the next runner on their team.

My curiosity assuaged I returned to the auditorium, only to find my former seat taken over by a small group of middle aged theatre goers. Fortunately for me (but unfortunate for Pinnacle), there were still many great seats available and I settled down in one of them right in the middle of the second row. I waited patiently for the show to start, looking over the set as I did so. I liked the set and found it interesting. Aside from some splotchy paint work (especially on the door), the set seemed well suited for the office of Frank. It was filled with shelves of books, hidden bottles of booze and not one but two busts of William Shakespeare. It was an obvious reflection of a man consumed with both literary studies and drinking.

When the play finally started, I got my first real look at the actor playing Frank as he sat in a chair down stage right and spoke to someone on a 1980’s style corded phone. Aside from being tall, Michael Flynn looked nothing like Tom Baker. He had long thinning white hair and the kind of square-jawed manly face you’d expect to see in a 1940’s film noir. At first I listened—perhaps a bit too closely—to his English accent, trying to hear any and all flaws in it or giveaways that it was fake. It’s a bad habit I’ve acquired over the years sitting through community theatre shows where well meaning but untalented actors butcher whatever accent they are trying to pull off. But Mr. Flynn is obviously far too experienced an actor and I quickly stopped trying to hear past his pretend accent and just listened to his words as though he were actually one of the Queen’s subjects.

The energy at the beginning was a bit awkward however, as actor’s talking on prop phones to imaginary and unheard people tend to be. But as soon as Rita, played by Melanie Nelson, arrived on scene looking to make Frank her tutor, speaking with a distinctly working class English accent and wearing her flashy 1980’s clothing with a short black and white skirt, the energy of the show shot skywards and never fell back down from the heavens. I last saw Ms. Nelson in Pinnacle’s revival of Proof last year, in which she gave a tour de force performance of a young woman mourning the loss of her mentally ill father. Her performance as Rita was in no way a let-down. If anything, Ms. Nelson shows us even more of her far-reaching range as an actress, playing this modern day Eliza Doolittle type character with such depth, honesty, vulnerability and humor. She hasn’t been in Frank’s office very long before she’s filling the air with all sorts of amusing observations and remarks. Upon seeing a replica of the Sandro Botticelli 1486 painting The Birth of Venus (You know, the one with the nude woman standing in a large clam shell?) and listening to Frank’s explanation of it, Rita surmises that the painting is really just about sex, saying that painting “…was the porn of their day”. She went on to say many other great quotes but I decided to (for the most part) rest my notebook and mechanical pencil and just enjoy the show which, with these two fine performers and a wonderful playwright, was like watching a well choreographed dance of the dialogue.

At first, one might wrongly assume that Rita is a dim bulb but as we get to know her and watch her grow under the tutelage of Frank, we discover just how smart and insightful she truly is. She talks about the “Got to Have Syndrome” we suffer from in modern society, which as she puts it “…makes you wonder why you have nothing, even when you’ve got it”. In her first attempt to write an essay on how to best stage Anton Chekhov’s play The Seagull, Rita simply writes: Do it on the radio. In her mind, you don’t have to be long winded and superfluous to make a good argument, but Frank challenges her to think deeper and see not just literature but the world itself with a more critical eye.

While doing his best to help Rita further her education, Franks worries that if Rita is to pass her exams and write good essays, she will have to fundamentally change who she is and therefore lose her uniqueness. Hearing Frank articulate this concern, I was reminded of my still beginning career as a part time reviewer for Backstage Utah. I am well aware that my reviews are not like those of more experienced and polished reviewers, but when I told JC Carter (the head honcho of BSU) that one day I’d turn in a professional style review, he flatly told me not to, saying that my style was unique, and that changing how I wrote reviews would take that uniqueness away. I’ve followed Mr. Carter’s advice since then, so blame him for the unpolished structure and overt casualness of this review. I’m only joking, of course.

And moving on…

We learn that Frank was once an aspiring poet whose work sadly never found a large market audience. At one point he says that “…poets shouldn’t ever believe in literature”. Meaning they should just write poetry and not worry about the greater literary world outside of what they do. We also get to see Frank inspire in Rita a burgeoning love for both reading and seeing plays. The first play Rita decides to see live is a community production of The Importance of Being Earnest staged in a neighborhood church hall. At first Frank, being he snob he is, resists going to the show, calling those involved in it “bloody armatures”, but in the end he gives in because he simply cannot refuse Rita who, were he twenty years younger, he’d no doubt pursue romantically.

I enjoyed a moment in the play where Rita gives Frank a fancy pen as a gift in appreciation for his help, telling him it is only to be used for writing poetry. It reminded me of a time five years ago, when my co-star in the play Love Letters gave me the very same gift. Speaking from experience, I can tell you that for a writer, few gifts could mean as much as a simple pen from someone close to you.

Later, as Rita’s love for plays and literature grows, she ventures out to plays on her own and watches a professional production of Macbeth which has a real strong impact on her. Frank takes a moment to explain what makes Macbeth not just tragic but a true tragedy. He tells Rita that in the heroes of tragedy are people who can see their cruel fate coming but who ultimately refuse or are unable to stop it from happening. As we watch Rita rise to new heights socially and intellectually, we are conversely witness to Frank’s increasing drinking and further fall into self pity and depression. While she ascends he descends, and it is both heartbreaking and beautiful and to see. I wonder if Frank realizes the irony of it all; teaching the meaning of tragedy while he suffers through his own.

There is so much more I could tell you about this show, so many things about it that I enjoyed and that made me remember why I love theatre so much, but I won’t. I’ll stop here and instead tell you, implore you, to make plans to go see this show before you miss out. Fewer experiences beat the joy of watching two great actors speak the words of a brilliant playwright. Only about a dozen folks attended the opening night performance of Educating Rita. I hope the house is packed full for the rest of the run. This is one play that deserves an audience. Please, don’t miss it.

Educating Rita will run until February 18th at the Midvale Performing Arts Center located at 695 W. Center Street (7720 South) in Midvale, Utah. For tickets, show times and other information, please visit the company’s website at pinnacleactingcompany.org.

About Robert A. Easton

Robert, known to friends and enemies alike as Bob, has been involved in theatre for the past two decades; first as an actor, then a director and finally a producer when he founded his own local theatre group, the Around the Globe Theatre Company in 2004. He still serves as ATG’s hapless Artistic Director. Bob also loves comic books and works as both a podcast contributor and bloviating blogger for the comic book themed podcast Hold 322. Aside from blogs and Backstage Utah reviews, Bob also writes scripts for both stage and screen, and is hard at work writing a series of fantasy novels he hopes to have published in the near future. His favorite acting advice is “Do it again, without the suck”. You can follow him on Twitter: @Robert_A_Easton.
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