Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
The teacher is Frank (Frederick Ponzlov), an alcoholic ex-poet professor who has taken on tutoring an Open University student (everybody gets in) because he needs the money. He is assigned to teach a Mrs. White who turns out to be Rita (Jessica Osbourne), a hairdresser out to better herself through education.
Though at first they seem like chalk and cheese, Frank's blasé, world-weary attitude and Rita's quick wits win each other over, and so they begin Rita's trek into English literature together. It's a new world for Rita, one which she explores with her usual blunt instrumentshumor, practicality, and an unwillingness to be taken in. But her insights are a breath of fresh air to Frank (the one window in his office is painted shut, don't cha know), who finds his world a little brighter because of her visits. As in all great student-teacher relationships, they learn from each other.
And as in all two-handed plays, you see Educating Rita for the acting. Ponzlov is an accomplished, award-winning actor who plays Frank as if life has disappointed him so much he can't even care about it anymore. Of course he numbs the pain with drink, and stays away from his bland-as-ratatouille second wife. He answers Rita's questions with the lassitude of an old hand at lit crit. Frank's routine detachment sinks him in embitterment and scotch.
But when Rita does an impromptu deconstruction of E.M. Forster's Howard's End as it applies to her life and the empty culture of her working-class family and friends, Frank slowly catches fire. Ponzlov is so much his character that we can't tell how he manages it. But more than a flicker is there, a willingness for his love of students to be rekindled by Rita's ability to make "connections" between life and literature. It's what a teacher lives for, and Frank can see it in Rita. Ponzlov makes us see it, too, with a deft hand, a nuanced performance and a very good English accent.
It's no secret that Jessica Osbourne is one of the top actresses in town, so I won't stint in my praise for her Rita. Whether she's making a joke, yelling at Frank, cursing, smoking, telling a story or simply soldiering on, Osbourne gleams just as Rita shines against the Liverpudlian gloom of her circumstances. This actor can hold and embody two concepts at once: She convinces us Rita's ready to learn while still amused by her customers in a going-nowhere job. She carries Rita's oppressive marriage like a badge of honor while letting us know it is time she moved on from that particular battle. And even as her Rita tries to emulate her roommate's upmarket accent, she realizes how silly she sounds and chucks it. "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function," said F. Scott Fitzgerald. Osbourne's Rita is smart and sane and high functioning. Funny as hell, too.
Osbourne and Ponzlov make us believe that Rita and Frank are meeting for the first time. They surprise each other on stage, perhaps the hardest thing for an actor to do and the truest test of his and her worth. Judging by the number of local actors and directors in attendance at Sunday's matinee, I'm not the only one who thinks that these two are more than worth the (very reasonable) price of admission, and more.
Educating Rita, through May 21, 2017, West End Productions at N4th Theater, 4904 Fourth Street NW, (505) 345-2872; For tickets, visit westendproductions.org or call 505-410-8524