Adapted and performed by Ronald Keaton
Directed by Kurt Johns
In the tradition of one-person shows based on historical figures, this lively Chicago import offers exactly what its title advertises. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about CHURCHILL but, like others of its ilk (GIVE ‘EM HELL, HARRY, THE BELLE OF AMHERST, etc.) it succeeds in drawing a colorful portrait of its subject and framing major events in a human context.
The play is set in Winston Churchill’s study, where the former prime minister is dabbing away at a landscape painting. Art is one of the items he relies on to help him relax during stressful times. The others, cigars and whiskey, are, of course, also in abundant supply. As Churchill muses, he recounts his rise from misfit schoolboy to legendary statesman. Born to a loving American-born mother and a distant, aristocratic father, young Winnie displays a contumacious nature from an early age. This gets him in trouble at boarding school, but proves useful in his later political career. Growing into manhood, he has neither the inheritance to become a member of the landed gentry nor the academic distinction required for a career in law. So he gravitates to the only career choice left to gentlemen of his class: The military. While serving as a second lieutenant in the Fourth Hussars, he becomes a war correspondent and eventually a bestselling author. But his true desire is to follow in his father’s footsteps and go into politics. He proves adept, if volatile, at statecraft, but by the late 1920’s changing social tides have left his party defeated and his career derailed. Soon, however, Fascism begins to rumble across Europe. Disastrous appeasement policies put Britain in a vulnerable position and the stage is set for a man of Winston’s keen intellect and fighting spirit to take the reigns of government.
Out of a rich vein of source material actor/adaptor Ronald Keaton has adroitly fashioned a trim, straight-ahead narrative peppered with legendary quotations as well as lesser-known musings on friendships, failures and the ever-changing world order. Keaton has his subject’s speech and mannerisms down pat. More crucially, he finds a kind of vulnerability beneath the prime minister’s iconic bulldog stare. Both in the script and in the performance, the portrait that emerges is of a born politician who practiced rigorous self-appraisal even as he ferociously took the world to task for its moral failings. Would that the same could more often be said of today’s world leaders.
CHURCHILL continues through May 31, 2015 at New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St., New York, NY 10019. Tickets: telecharge.com