Nature abhors a vacuum, and apparently so does art. No sooner has Duluth's Aurora Theatre moved to Lawrenceville than the fledgling Red Clay Theatre and Arts Center, under managing partners Shelly Howard and Mark Pitt, opened just a block down Duluth's Main Street from Aurora's old space. Red Clay's venue, a converted church that still smells of recently dried paint, improves on Aurora's old theater by boasting more seats, more space and more overall slickness.
Red Clay's new production of Educating Rita has more significance as a new theater's inaugural show than as a satisfying entertainment in its own right. You may remember the chipper 1983 film version with Michael Caine and Julie Walters: Rita (Agnes Harty), a restless, working-class hairdresser, seeks to broaden her intellectual horizons by taking a literature course from Frank (Eric Brooks), a boozing, washed-up former poet.
Inevitably, Rita and Frank spend more time talking their personal problems than great books, which is a shame because Rita's literary epiphanies provide the most effervescent moments. Early in the play, Rita's common sense amusingly punctures the pretense of academia, but she becomes transported when she finally "gets" Howards End and, later, sees Macbeth. ("Wasn't his wife a cow!")
Harty nicely captures Rita's wit and gumption, but the show lacks a certain snap. Either the jokes need more confident punch to bring out the laughs, or the characters need sharper angles to heighten the drama. Harty and Brooks both provide "huggable" performances when their roles seem to be more prickly, difficult individuals. It doesn't help that the play's cultural references have aged poorly over two decades and across the Atlantic, although Red Clay's production, directed by Allen O'Reilly, goes a long way to compensate by using bouncy, early-1980s Brit-pop to set the mood.
Educating Rita takes a fairly snobbish view of feminist self-actualization, which portrays Rita's hostile, offstage husband and her blue-collar pals as little better than cavemen. The play's most thought-provoking moments come when Frank resists the notion that now-learned Rita no longer needs him, which unfortunately evokes an earlier, superior text. Inevitably, when Educating Rita teaches us about the importance of distinguishing great literature from second-rate writing, we can't help but perceive the play as a pale shadow of "Pygmalion."
Educating Rita. Through Nov. 5. Red Clay Theatre, 3116 Main St., Duluth. Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. $22.50-$30. 770-622-1777. www.redclaytheatrearts.com.