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In the original Greek myth, Pygmalion sculpts a female companion and falls in love with her. Aphrodite grants his wish and makes her come alive. The couple apparently lives happily ever after, though she never gets to speak.

In numerous re-tellings - from Shaw's Pygmalion to the movie Pretty Woman, the woman not only speaks, she injects life back into her creator, who's been stuck as a statue.

Willy Russell's Educating Rita carries on the "sculptor heal thyself" theme. Behind the great works of literature, Frank hides a stash of amber fluids. Behind Dickens, Johnny Walker Black; Chekhov, VSOP. Frank's a professor in northern England and an erstwhile poet. To support a quenchless thirst, he tutors in the school's Open University program for part-time students.

Enter Mrs. S. White. A hairdresser from Liverpool now calling herself Rita, she hit the working-class cultural ceiling - "the absolute maximum I can expect" - and wants to "discover me-self." She chooses Frank to prep. her for the Lit. Exam, though it's clear he's "not too fond of himself."

The play follows the progress of their mutual tutelage for a year. The first act feels almost as long. Education's a lengthy road. The playwright inspects each footprint. Since the changes are often subtle, many scenes have a lulling sameness. And since the end is never in doubt, there's very little conflict. She rises, speaks and dresses better, eschews four-letter words, while he does a blithe collapse.

(Russell acknowledged the problem, a few years ago, when he wrote a 90-minute, radio script of Rita).

The play premiered in 1980. Director Rosina Reynolds smartly makes it a period piece for North Coast Rep., in part because a working-class woman demanding choices would have been even more heroic back then.

Reynolds cast able actors for the two-hander: Bjorn Johnson gives tweed-clad Frank a shaggy angst, as if trapped in a maze of his own making. Meghan Andrews' Rita conveys an ardent will to grow and change: not a want or need, but her right. Opening night performances were more than capable but could use greater arcs. Also, Rita's an "original." One of her first remarks, about pornography in religious art, is more insightful than anything Frank could imagine. This makes his task, preparing Rita for an exam without stifling her originality, much trickier than the production acknowledges.

Costume designer Jeannie Galioto helps capture the period, though Rita's initial outfit look brand new - and, to help trace Rita's growth, could be a tad more distressed. Marty Burnett opens the new year with a beautifully detailed set: shelves of books and papers in comfy deshabille and Gothic, pointed arch windows that, when Matthew Novotny lights them from behind, look like surfboards.


North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987-D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach, playing through February 3.

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