By Jack Lyons Theatre and Film Critic. Member of American Theatre Critics Association

“Educating Rita”, is a two character 1980 British comedy written by Willy Russell who was willing to poke his thumb into eyes of the English class system with its rigid society steeped in traditions where the twain of the middle class and the working-class would rarely ever meet – at a University.

The comedy has echoes of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” that years later would be made into a musical blockbuster that would come to be known as “My Fair Lady”.

The intimate Groves Cabin Theatre of Morongo Valley is the perfect venue to stage this somewhat talky comedy. The recently renovated theatre – both inside and outside – places the audience a mere five feet away.  That’s enough distance to touch the performers on a good night.  It’s the smallest stage area of all the theatres in the hi-desert and the Coachella Valley. They only have twenty-two seats, but they also hold the record for winning more than 60 plus Awards for excellence in various categories from the prestigious Desert Theatre League.

“Educating Rita”, stars Bianca Stoker as Rita, and Kevin Hayles as Frank, under the direction of award-winning director/actor Abe Daniels.  Daniels will be directing three of the four productions that comprise the Groves Cabin Theatre 2019/2020 season.

The play deals with the concept of freedom, change, and England’s stultifying class system of institutional education over the centuries.  It also echoes and is reminiscent of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion”, which itself would become the blockbuster musical “My Fair Lady” in 1956.

Set in 1980 in Liverpool, England, the distinctive nasal “Liverpudlian” accent made famous by the Beatles, becomes a stern test for American audiences to absorb while “translating the dialogue” back into the more-friendly American-English accent.  Also, the speed and delivery of today’s 21st century actors require audiences of a certain age to be fully engaged in order follow the storyline.

Twenty Seven year-old hairdresser Rita (Bianca Stoker) decides to improve her life and her social situation through education, as a way of living a more satisfying and fulfilling life.  Enrolling in the local university, she finds herself as a student in the English Literature class tutored by adjunct English professor Frank (Kevin Hayles).

Rita is maddeningly undisciplined, but refreshing, in her eagerness to learn.  She announces to Frank, teach me everything about literature now.  So where do we begin?  Whoa!  Frank is unprepared for this high energy, inquisitive, whirling dervish of a female that is in a hurry to learn everything that literature has to offer in just one year.

Frank, on the other hand, is a middle age, laid-backed, low energy, married alcoholic, who is just happy to slide through life as long as he has his mother’s milk of Scotch to help him through the day.   Then one day he discovers that Rita has the gift of real talent, motivation, and the ability to learn.  He decides to tutor her in earnest in a proper platonic professor to student manner.

As the play unfolds the audience can root for their favorite character, but one must wait to find out how it all turns out.  No spoiler alerts from me.

“Educating Rita”, is a worthwhile evening in the theatre. However, the chemistry between Rita and Frank that needs to be present is a bit MIA.  No sparks fly, nor should they.  But we need more stage energy and pace to carry the audience along to the plays resolution.

The production credits list Rex Alshire as Lights and Sound designer; Hair design by Liyan McWilliams, and James Dain Rich as stage manager.  The splendid-looking set is uncredited.

“Educating Rita” performs on Saturdays at 7 PM and on Sundays at 2:30 PM at the Groves Cabin Theatre of Morongo Valley, CA. It runs through October 20, 2019.  Reservations are a must. Call the box office at 760-365-4523.