"Educating Rita" is a well-known play with a predictable arc and two characters we have seen often in the worlds of theater, literature and film.
But watching "Educating Rita" as it opened at Renaissance Theaterworks Saturday night was like being in a recital hall watching Rudolph Nureyev and Dame Margot Fonteyn dance a foxtrot while Leonard Bernstein conducted the orchestra.
One brilliant director and two brilliant actors took a play and a story that everybody knows and carried it into a cloud of rapture that made me wonder if I was holding my breath for the entire two acts.
Under the gentle and patient guidance of director Jenny Wanasek, actors Jonathan Smoots and Christina Panfilio could have stood on stage and read the phone book and held us just as spellbound as they did opening night.
Make no mistake about it. This story is one we've seen a million times. Think of "Pygmalion," "My Fair Lady," "Pretty Woman," "Sabrina" or "Million Dollar Baby." They are all variations on the same theme as is "Educating Rita."
There is a girl who has no grace or sophistication or ability. She gets hooked up with a much smarter man, a professor or businessman or coach or millionaire. He has his demons, but undertakes to change the girl. She wants to change and thinks he is the key to helping her on her journey.
She fights and fidgets while he succumbs to whatever vice he has, be it snobbery or alcoholism and everything in between. One or the other starts to feel some romantic stirrings, while the other remains obliviously aloof and unaware.
Eventually she grows into the lily she wanted to be, grateful for the periodic watering provided by the man. And fully grown, he begins to feel useless, unwanted, saddened by her growth. She understands his sadness and claims he liked it better when she was a dummy, wondering where her next bit of growth would come from.
And it ends with everybody happy. She's smart. He relaxes from the tension of wanting more of her than she is giving. And we all go home.
Now let's talk about this production and let's start with Wanasek, the director, who has a lengthy and proud history as both an actor and director in Milwaukee.
At some point she must have realized that the story she had been handed was not unique or surprising. And she had enough insight to understand that to raise this production out of the ordinary, she needed to allow the focus to be on the actors, the people in the play, not the story.
It was a brilliant directorial decision and one that required a director who understands how actors work and how they can carry a play.
The two actors in this play were an equal match for Wanasek.
Smoots, who is well-known to Milwaukee audiences, creates a character we love, pity and wonder about all in the space of a little over 90 minutes. He has incredible discipline as an actor and allows Frank both parry and thrust like a skilled swordsman faced with an unconventional opponent and his own private demons.
Panfilio, who plays Rita, is, very simply, a transcendent figure on stage. Early on she is the hairdresser from Liverpool with an undirected lust in her heart to learn "everything." Her journey is full of humor, sex appeal, naivete, and surprise. It would have been easy for her to end her performance as a totally transformed trophy for Frank. But she maintains her Liverpudlian roots and allows the new girl to fill her head but not her heart, which remains as true and unsullied as it was at the beginning of her journey.
It is difficult to express in words the performances in this play. We have seen a lot of good and great acting in Milwaukee so far this season. But what happens in "Educating Rita" is something very, very special.
"Educating Rita" runs through Feb. 10th. Information can be obtained at r-t-w.com
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