Director Cameron Watson's lovingly staged production of British playwright Willy Russell's updated 1980 stage play for two actors (probably better remembered for its 1983 film adaptation) couldn't re-emerge at a better time in this country. Just as we're getting increasingly dire reports on the blowback of our economic recession on public education rural schools cutting back to a four-day week, bus service curtailed, the cost of school lunches being jacked up as the rate of families evicted from their foreclosed homes keeps escalating along comes Russell's homage to the capacities of learning to change minds and lives. A precocious beauty (Rebecca Mozo) wanders in to the extended education course of musty, aging college professor (Bjørn Johnson), a failed poet who teaches at a university in the north of England. They're both addicts she to cigarettes, he to booze -- but she has an insatiable curiosity about poetry and appetite to learn literary criticism. Her early essays are emotional responses, and he tutors her in that crusty, Shavian way depicted in Pygmalion -- to become more objective in her responses. She does, and he gets more than he bargained for. Through the course of their lessons, her life opens up, despite her shattering marriage; meanwhile, caught in pangs of jealousy and personal remorse, his life stumbles towards oblivion. The general pattern has a generic shape of A Star Is Born, but the emotional complexities that come with addictions and self-loathing are revelatory. The fire in Mozo's Rita is hypnotic while her dialect keeps intruding like a small needle a sound wavering between the south of England, the north of England and Alabama. Johnson is more credible than compelling in a workmanlike performance. Even with these drawbacks, the play's inner tensions come through, and Victoria Profitt's library-office set and Terri A. Lewis' costumes say as much about what's going on between these two as any of their words.
Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 & 7 p.m. Starts: Aug. 23. Continues through Sept. 21, 2008