PITTSFIELD — Miguel de Cervantes: Novelist, poet, playwright, soldier, tax collector and, in the musical "Man of La Mancha," an adaptation of his celebrated novel, "Don Quixote," a complete man of the theater — actor, director, consummate storyteller, especially as played by Jeff McCarthy in Barrington Stage Company's well-acted, solidly crafted production, which opened over the weekend at BSC's Boyd-Quinson Mainstage.
For the show's creators — playwright Dale Wasserman, lyricist Joe Darion and composer Mitch Leigh — theater is a perfect metaphor for a story that is as much about transformation, the nature of reality, and the power of imagination as it is about a foolish ingenuous country squire traveling the countryside stubbornly insisting on doing the good, noble and right thing in a world that is anything but good, noble and right.
The time of "Man of La Mancha" is 1605; the setting — evocatively designed by James Kronzer and hauntingly lit by Chris Lee — is a dungeon holding cell in an Inquisition prison in Seville where murderers and thieves are awaiting their turns before the much-feared court. Into their midst is thrown Cervantes (McCarthy) — accompanied by his servant (a sublime Tom Alan Robbins). As a tax collector for the Inquisition, Cervantes has made the mistake of imposing a lien on a church. But before his appearance before the Inquisition, Cervantes must face trial by the other prisoners. He mounts as his defense his tale of Don Quixote, assigning himself the role of Quixote and other roles at will to the other prisoners, fashioning props, set pieces and costuming from the scraps available in this dark, dank room.
Among this production's singular achievements is its grit and muscle, a raw earthiness that is reflected in costumer Olivera Gajic's palette; a palpable sense of base instincts in combat against the assertions of humankind's better, kinder, more compassionate nature.
Moreover, even when Wasserman, Leigh and Darion's material wears thin late in the show and surrenders at every possible turn throughout to shamelessly manipulative impulses, there is an unwavering sense of boundaries and authenticity in the performances.
It helps immeasurably that director Julianne Boyd has assembled a smart, resourceful and accomplished cast, beginning with McCarthy, for whom this dual leading role of Cervantes/Quixote seems tailor-made. McCarthy approaches this role an authority that is shaped by compassion, fear, vivid imagination, wry humor and a keen understanding of the way in which the world truly works. He handles the show's impossibly mawkish signature tune, "The Impossible Dream," with masterly control, pacing and conviction.
In addition to Robbins' engaging Sancho, there is in the supporting cast especially convincing work from Ed Dixon in the dual roles of The Governor, who holds sway over his fellow prisoners, and The Innkeeper; Sean MacLaughlin, who, as the cynical Duke, is eager to prosecute Cervantes and as the pragmatic Dr. Carrasco engineers Quixote's downfall; and a spirited, no-holds-barred Felicia Boswell as Aldonza, a barmaid-cook-housekeeper who is the poster woman for sexual abuse and human degradation and who, against the cruel lessons she's been taught by life, finds herself yielding to Quixote's image of her as the heroine of his quest, Dulcinea. From the bottom of the dung heap that is her life, even Aldonza dares to entertain the notion that redemption and good are possible in a world of impossibility.