“Educating Rita,” with its ever-popular “Pygmalion” storyline, is the perfect play to fill out a regional theater season. Not surprisingly, the dependable Berkshire Theater Festival delivers a solid if somewhat paint-by-numbers production of the one-set two-hander about an undereducated working-class girl looking for transformation and the overeducated professor she meets. But despite providing a suitable number of laughs while dealing with the more serious topics of education and the U.K. class system, helmer Richard Corley’s take on Willy Russell’s ’80s comedy barely lingers in the mind beyond the drive home.
The play has a proven track record, having had a successful run on the West End some 25 years ago and spawning a memorable film with Michael Caine and Julie Walters (who both received Oscar noms for their perfs in it). But its theatrical structure, with its too-many-to-count first act scenes, is awkward. The numerous blackouts and costume changes grow wearisome despite the bouncy period punk tunes used to fill the silence.
One becomes more forgiving, however, once Tara Franklin settles into her Rita, and Sarah Reever’s many costumes take on a supporting role as they subtly define Rita’s transformation from working-class hairdresser to chic scholar.
Few characters are more likeable than the self-improving Rita, and Franklin’s luminous, complete-body performance delightfully captures all her quirky nuances. Within moments of her whirlwind entrance, Frank (Jonathan Epstein) falls under her spell, uttering that she’s “the first breath of air in this room in ages.”
Joseph Varga’s set has the appropriate book-lined, professorial clutter, which underscores the fact that things haven’t changed much for Frank since he began a long, slow decline into alcoholism after the publication of poems he now loathes.
As Rita moves to escape her life as a hairdresser, her off-stage husband and others begin to feel increasingly threatened. “It’s like drug addicts,” Rita says, “they hate it when someone tries to break away.”
Break away she does, however, and her transformation is nearly complete when Rita returns from a summer spent in London. Now, it’s Frank’s turn to feel threatened by the new-and-improved Rita, who wants to be called by her real name, Susan.
“I think I want to be known as Mary,” Frank says, making reference to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” “Don’t like me anymore now that I’m all grown up,” Rita answers back. “Now that I don’t want to sit on Daddy’s knee anymore?”
But nobody here is sitting on anyone’s knee — any sexual or other tension between Frank and Rita is curiously absent. Epstein (a victim of possibly the worst hair day of the summer season) plays Frank too disheveled. So much so that by play’s end, when Frank braves asking Rita to go away with him to Australia, there’s not a chance in hell that she’ll go; even Frank seems to know what her answer will be.
She settles him down in a chair, instead, for a long overdo, consolation prize: a haircut. It’s the first time the two have made any physical contact whatsoever — a case of too little, too late.