Is this an example of life imitating art? It certainly seems so with the current production of "That Certain Cervantes" by Heritage Theatre Company of Chevy Chase. The small professional troupe is staging Harry Cason's semi-biographical play about Miguel de Cervantes, the 16th- to- 17th century Spanish writer who created the iconic character Don Quixote. The Quixote persona is a fanciful, eccentric figure of a man, combining romantic obsession with unrestrained idealism -- a description that might also be applied to Heritage's infatuation with this play.
Heritage is staking a lot on this one-man play. The company first performed it last spring in its "East Coast premiere," then cleared the schedule of shows planned for the fall to bring it back. Producing artistic director Karey Faulkner gets misty-eyed describing the play, using terms that suggest directing it has been a life-changing experience for her. But she sees things not necessarily apparent to all who view the production. Although this is certainly an enjoyable, streamlined presentation (70 minutes, with no intermission), it must be said that it's not extraordinary.
The play's value lies less in its literary worth and almost entirely with the bravura performance of its star, Frank B. Moorman, who portrays Cervantes and some of his acquaintances, both real and fictional. That not only includes Don Quixote -- known in musical quarters, of course, as the Man of La Mancha -- but his faithful sidekick Sancho Panza as well.
The year is 1611. Cason places Cervantes at his writing desk, nervously awaiting a royal emissary whom he has to convince to grant him desperately needed patronage. As the appointed hour approaches, Cervantes agonizes over what selections might best please the important visitor, and so he takes us on a journey through some of his body of work, acting out snippets ranging from intense memories of the 1571 Battle of Lopanto naval engagement, through the rigors of being held captive by Muslim pirates, and onto the death of his brother at the Battle of Flanders. Along the way, he vents about his disappointments, makes catty remarks about his enemies, wallows in anxieties and brings his Quixote character to life.
Moorman's success is primarily a technical achievement. He is facile with changes in voice, aspect and attitude, ably meeting the challenges of performing multiple roles in a nonstop, energetic, dynamic presentation. But he never truly inhabits Cervantes or probes the man's inner reaches very deeply, the inevitable result of the playwright cramming too much material into this play.
Cason seems to blur the lines between fact and Cervantes's own fiction, which may help the dramatic arc of the monologue but leaves us a bit unclear about who Cervantes really was. If we believe this play, Cervantes struggled with the idea of conforming to the rigid political correctness that would win him favor, fighting his instincts as a raging idealist. But that's only because the playwright has the character tell us this. We never get a palpable sense of what fuels his true subversive drives.
This is not to detract from Moorman's work, which is quite engaging. He's out there alone, with no scenic design for support and only the most rudimentary lighting, tilting his heart out for us. Cason surely has enough material available to flesh out his work and provide a vehicle fully worthy of the actor.
"That Certain Cervantes" continues through Nov. 19, performed by Heritage Theatre Company at Harlow Hall, North Chevy Chase Church, 8814 Kensington Pkwy., Chevy Chase. Showtime Fridays and Saturdays is 8 p.m. with Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 4 p.m. For information and tickets, call 301-770-9080 or visit www.theheritagetheatre.org.