by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & n idealistic old knight asks his lady for her trust and a token of her favor; the whore responds by spitting on his quest and tossing him a dishrag. This face-off between Don Quixote and Aldonza exemplifies the conflict between face-the-facts realism and imagine-it-otherwise idealism in Man of La Mancha (at Spokane Civic Theatre through June 15).

Ever the idealist, Quixote (Patrick McHenry-Kroetch) caresses the dirty towel and pronounces it "gossamer." Those who chuckled -- and there were many in the opening-night audience -- were probably thinking along the lines of "deluded old fool." But McHenry-

Kroetch's persuasive line reading conjures the power of the imagination. If we don't keep striving to break free of the muckheap we're stuck on, Quixote seems to ask, then what's a life for?

And yes, he steps up and delivers on the famous anthem that everyone remembers. Somehow he manages to combine a powerful baritone with tottering movements in "The Impossible Dream," showing us Don Quixote's vulnerability and stoic endurance in the same moment. When the tempo dwindles as Quixote contemplates being "laid to my rest," McHenry-Kroetch lingers in repose for a moment before rousing himself to continue: resolute striving embodied in the song's action. Galloping through the title song and holding his love-longing tight in "Dulcinea," his performance ranges -- often in the space of just a few moments -- from feeble to virile, from despondent to aspiring.

Director Troy Nickerson devises some effective sequences: two stylized horses that appear out of nowhere; the way that Quixote gazes longingly at his Dulcinea and pursues her across the stage during a crowd scene; later on, a stylized rape sequence that while not ugly enough, didn't shy away from ugliness and human corruption, either.

While musical director Gary Laing's ensemble sounded thin in the overture, it propelled the self-assertion of "It is I, Don Quixote" and provided a nicely understated, guitar-strumming introduction for an "Impossible Dream" that soon after soared.

Scenic and lighting designer David Baker bathes his Spanish dungeon in golden light at some junctures, then plunges it into ominous darkness. And his menacing drop-down staircase underscores the scariness of the Spanish Inquisition.

Nickerson's production contains many fine moments -- the realistic/idealistic confrontations between McHenry-Kroetch and Tami Knoell as Aldonza, full of tension; the ensemble's energy as the costumes fly out of the trunk and the play within a play gets produced inside the prison; the pathos of the final sequence (Quixote's "death" and "resurrection"); the creepy magic of the Knight of the Mirrors episode, in which Gavin Smith's bossy realist compels Quixote to see himself, really see himself.

But the conflict of practicality and imagination, so striking in the holding up of the mirrors, seems underemphasized elsewhere: The Civic's La Mancha approximates the ideal, but it's also, at several junctures, earth-bound. For one thing, Dale Wasserman's book of the musical is so episodic that it prolongs the evening unnecessarily. Sure, it's possible to explain what the scene with the padre hearing confession from two women was all about. But can anyone explain how the show would be harmed if it were cut? Similarly, the second act's gypsy fantasia has Quixote repeatedly seeing the bright side of tawdry circumstances -- which we've seen him doing before, repeatedly. It's filler.

Nickerson settles for a jokey approach (slapstick muleteers, that goofball Sancho) that instead of pitting idealism against humans the way they really are, poses a debate between idealism and humanity's exaggerated silliness. Take the "it's a shaving basin"/"no, it's a golden helmet" sequence. Here and in the earlier praising of the kitchen trollop Aldonza, Quixote's exaggerations are received with a kind of forehead-smacking "How can he possibly see things this way?" attitude. But what's needed instead is more in the way of how Aldonza, being repeatedly told that she isn't worthless at all but worthwhile, gradually is converted to Quixote's hopeful perspective. The Golden Helmet of Mambrino is both valuable and ridiculous, and Quixote's imaginings need to be seen through both sets of lenses.

In the early going, Knoell didn't seem to be in strong voice; later on, she wasn't bitter enough in spitting at Quixote's quest and damning humankind for the crime of being born. In "I Really Like Him" and "A Little Gossip," Gary Pierce fails to project melodies. Then he camps up Sancho Panza's comic mannerisms so much that the sidekick seems planted on the side of the realists instead of ever coming over to his master's idealistic point of view.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & "L & lt;/span & ove not what thou art, but only what thou may become," says Don Quixote. Idealists get such a bum rap: Realists are always decrying them as impractical, when all practicality gets us is too much focus on all the things that keep us hemmed in. The tilter at windmills is like that inconvenient, bothersome voice inside all our heads that's always urging us to do better: Being quixotic can be obnoxious.

The Civic's Man of La Mancha sounds and looks great. (They may have gotten a windfall of Renaissance costumes, but Susan Berger and Jan Wanless impressively built up all those slashed sleeves and floppy breeches.) In McHenry-Kroetch's performance generally -- and in the simple way Knoell renames herself, acceding to the old knight's vision of Dulcinea -- it creates some inspiring moments. A better production, however, would have demonstrated how gritty realism is merely jaded and self-limiting, and how idealism can become self-blinding. By playing up the impracticalities of Quixote's insistence on striving for a better life, Nickerson's show settles for humor when it could have contained a genuine debate.

Summer Parkways @ South Hill

Through June 20
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