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Posted May 28, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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'La Mancha': The story of the 'mad' knight was director's first

"Man of La Mancha" rehearsal
Aldonza, played by Nancy O'Bryan, left, struggles to get a personal letter back during a rehearsal of the musical "Man of La Mancha," which opens June 7 at Wayside Theatre in Middletown. Also, from left, are actors, Vaughn Irving, Mike Rosengarten, Cody Murphy, Dave Sucharski and Gus Glatzel. Andrew Thayer/Daily

Jayson Belew, Sucharski and Tom Simpson rehearse
From left, Jayson Belew, Sucharski and Tom Simpson rehearse a scene from the musical "Man of La Mancha." Andrew Thayer/Daily

Aviva Pressman, Simpson, Belew and Sucharski rehearse
From left, Aviva Pressman, Simpson, Belew and Sucharski rehearse a scene from the musical. Andrew Thayer/Daily

Nancy O'Bryan rehearses
Aldonza, played by Nancy O'Bryan, speaks with Cervantes/Don Quixote, played by Tom Simpson, during a rehearsal of the musical "Man of La Mancha" that will start June 7 at the Wayside Theatre in Middletown. Andrew Thayer/Daily

Nancy O'Bryan speaks
Aldonza, played by Nancy O'Bryan, speaks with Cervantes/Don Quixote, played by Tom Simpson, during a rehearsal of the musical "Man of La Mancha" that will start June 7 at the Wayside Theatre in Middletown. Andrew Thayer/Daily

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By Preston Knight -- pknight@nvdaily.com

MIDDLETOWN -- A love, or maybe just the slightest appreciation, for the arts has to start somewhere.

For Warner Crocker, Wayside Theatre's artistic director, it was between his freshman and sophomore years at Nelson County High School. He was a part of a program funded by the Ford Foundation that offered members a variety of experiences, including a night at a now-defunct dinner theater outside of Richmond.

The play, Crocker's first, was "Man of La Mancha," which follows the story of the "mad" knight, Don Quixote. The performance made an immediate impression.

"It always stuck with me," Crocker said. "I had no idea, at that point in my life, that I was going to end up in the theater business. ... Like anything in life, first impressions count. If you have a great experience going into a theater at a young age, it sticks with you."

To open Wayside's 48th season, he is relying on "Man of La Mancha" to make that same impression on first-time and longtime patrons. Crocker thinks the 1960s Tony Award-winning classic will have no issues completing the task.

"This is a play that teaches us it is OK to dream even the most impossible dream," he said. "It's not just the song ["Impossible Dream" in the play]. It's the spirit contained in that. If you have a dream you need to follow it. You have to follow that passion."

The musical is a play within a play, told by Miguel Cervantes, who wrote "Don Quixote" in the 1600s. Cervantes and his male servant are arrested by the Spanish Inquisition, and while in prison, his belongings, including the manuscript for "Don Quixote," were at risk of being snatched away.

To defend himself and retain his possessions, Cervantes tells the story of Quixote and the impossible dream, involving his fellow prisoners in the tale. The dream, Crocker said, involves romance, but, in general, pertains to Quixote's quest to be a noble man and follow his heart despite his shortcomings (he mistakes windmills for giants and tilts at them, for example).

"It's a story that attracts a lot of people," said R. Scott Williams, a Washington actor who plays Cervantes' servant, Sancho. "It's one of those great classics."

He considers himself a theater "anomaly," though, because he has never seen the play performed or been in a production of it. Williams has seen the film version.

The play will be a proper opener for Wayside's season, he said.

"It's always good to start off the season with a big bang," Williams said.

Another reason Wayside is doing it is because of the availability of Tom Simpson, another Washington actor, Crocker said. He said Simpson is the "perfect" Quixote.

"He's a beautiful singer, a wonder actor," Crocker said. "He's one of those singers you stop breathing and listen to."

Simpson said he has never played Quixote, but that the role fits his voice well.

"It's quite a challenge," he said. "It's one of the more epic roles in American music theater. It was hard to resist something like this when it was offered to you."

Simpson shares Crocker's memories of the play, recalling seeing it at the National Theatre in Washington. The enormity of the production, with a large live orchestra, still sticks in his mind, he said.

And now, years later, Wayside is trying its own version. Striking parallels are seen by several people involved.

"The biggest thing is that [the play] gives hope," said Nancy O'Bryan, who plays Aldonza, a woman Quixote provides encouragement to. "Especially with the economy the way it is today, the shows that give us hope [mean more]."

Crocker said: "In some ways, doing this play about the impossible dream relates to Wayside Theatre to a point. We're still trying to survive. Some days, it seems like keeping this place open is an impossible dream. This can be a rallying cry for so many."

"Man of La Mancha" will begin at 6:30 p.m. June 7 and run through July 4. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25-$30 for adults and $10 for children 17 and younger. For more information, call 869-1776.

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