It’s not surprising that John Pratt was motivated to take the role of English literature professor Frank in “Educating Rita,” opening Friday at Olympia Little Theatre.
Pratt spent his career as a professor of English, teaching at Centralia College for two decades before his retirement.
And Kaaren Spanski-Dreffin, a former student of Pratt’s, plays Rita, the working-class hairdresser who decides to pursue an education as an adult.
“This is right down my alley in terms of interest, background, experience,” Pratt said. “I understand the situation and the character in terms of how he has to grow and change himself to deal with a different type of student that he’s never had to handle before.”
It’s not merely such coincidences that drew Pratt to the role of the cynical and bitter professor, played by Michael Caine in the popular 1983 film adaptation of English playwright Willy Russell’s play.
“I saw the English actor Tim Pigott-Smith do the show in London in the summer of 2010,” Pratt said. “I saw a 60-some-year-old man doing the role. I thought this makes much more sense with a person who’s older, nearing the end of his career.
“I thought I’d really like to do this role, and when I got back home I talked to a director friend who agreed to take it on.”
Pratt, Spanski-Dreffin and director Norma Rogers produced the play together in 2012 at the Evergreen Playhouse in Centralia, and Pratt was eager to do it again, so he asked the Olympia Little Theatre if they’d like to include it in their season.
“I just love the script,” he said. “It’s structured so well. It builds well toward a climax.
“It’s funny in places, it’s poignant in places, and it’s very real.”
Pratt is far from the only fan of the two-person play, which won the Olivier award for best new comedy in 1980.
“It’s a charming play, and it has a lovely happy ending,” said Kathryn Beall, the theater’s managing director.
While the play is the kind of light entertainment Olympia Little Theatre often produces, it’s also something more.
“Sure, ‘Rita’ is a safe choice in some ways, an old-fashioned crowd pleaser,” Don Aucoin wrote in a Boston Globe review of a 2011 production. “Yes, it sometimes rides the predictable rhythms of a TV sitcom. But this play has craft and wit and heart, and moments of piercing truth, too.”
For one thing, it shows the value of education. Russell wrote it at a time when the idea of a university education for returning adult students was a novel one.
“Education is a way for people to change,” Pratt said. “It’s a way for people to deal with change and I would think the primary way we can change when we need to.
“We live in a world where adults have that opportunity, especially at community colleges. That’s something I devoutly believe in as a retired college teacher.”
What: Olympia Little Theatre presents the Willy Russell play about the relationship between a working-class hairdresser who returns to night school and her English tutor.
When: 7:55 p.m. Friday and Saturday, plus Feb. 13-15 and 20-22, with matinees at 1:55 p.m. Feb. 16 and 23
Where: Olympia Little Theatre, 1925 Miller Ave. NE, Olympia
Tickets: $10-$14 at olympialittletheatre.org, at Yenney Music and at the door
More information: 360-786-9484 or olympialittle theatre.org