Educating Rita at PICT Classic | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Educating Rita at PICT Classic

This contemporary classic on 1980s English life is just as relevant here and now

Willy Russell’s Educating Rita has one unchanging set. But thanks to the onstage chemistry between Karen Baum and Marty Giles, PICT Classic’s production of this seminal examination of the English class system and personal education keeps the audience’s eyes fixed firmly for its entire running time. 

Rita comes to Frank, a university professor stuck in a rut of boozy academic ennui, hoping to break free of her working-class stagnancy by “knowing everything.” The Pygmalion-like clash of cultures provides a spectacle of hilarity and touching sentimentality as the two realize that what they both hope to find is not that different. Baum and Giles bounce off each other and command the space they’re in with electric dialogue and fantastic asides. “Howard’s End?” the unknowing Rita howls. “It sounds filthy!”

The 1980 play originally starred Julie Walters; its popular 1983 movie adaptation paired Walters with Michael Caine. PICT’s production, directed by Alan Stanford, both pays homage to earlier incarnations and recapitulates the play’s unique capture of English vernacular, with working-class worries pitted against middle-class melancholy. 

As British native myself, I felt that the production’s attention to detail regarding English culture was deeply impressive, and something that an American audience should not take for granted. (The Greenwich Time Signal “pips” of BBC Radio 4, softly playing in the back of Frank’s office, were a well-researched nuance.) Such details often pass unnoticed, but this play offers such vivid insight into the class cultures of the United Kingdom that PICT audiences should strive to take in every sight and sound.

It is with a tinge of ironic sadness, however, that Stanford prefaced the performance by announcing PICT’s foreboding of lack of funding, drawing attention to the symbolic shaded tones of the budget-conscious black-and-white programs. (The company recently canceled a planned fall production of The Tempest.) Given a play like Rita, which examines how rewarding and liberating is the love of literature and the arts, it is troubling that PICT should be threatened by insufficient support. Every member of the audience felt that watching the play, and more of us should, too.

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