The idea of “going solo” was in the back of Ronald Keaton’s mind for a long time. But the veteran Chicago actor, who has performed in plays and musicals on the stages of many of Chicago’s largest theaters for four decades, confesses it took him a very long time to act on it.
“Standing up there by yourself, and putting your message out there without other actors around you, requires a combination of courage and ego,” said Keaton. “But at this point it boils down to remaining relevant. As you get older as an actor you run into that common thing of just not being considered because of age, and not being hired as often as you’d like. To be able to remain vital and relevant, and to keep doing something challenging, is essential to me. And I feel I still have something to contribute.”
So Keaton established a new Actors Equity-affiliated company, SoloChicago, which is devoted to the production of original solo works of theater, both by himself and others, and which bears the motto “advancing theater, one actor at a time.” Its initial presentation, for which Keaton is both adapter and performer, is “Churchill” — a portrait of the man widely regarded as one of the greatest wartime leaders of the 20th century, who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (from 1940-1945 and again from 1951-1955); guided Great Britain (and in many ways the world) in the fight against Nazism; received the Nobel Prize in Literature, and was the first person to be made an honorary citizen of the United States.
Initially presented at the Greenhouse Theater Center as a part of its Trellis staged reading series, “Churchill” was produced earlier this year in “developmental form” at First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook and received an enthusiastic response. Now, the show debuts at the Greenhouse Theater Center, where it opens Monday for a run through Sept. 14.
“Churchill,” directed by Kurt Johns, is based on the prolific writings of Churchill (1864-1975), as well as the teleplay “Winston Churchill” by Dr. James C. Humes.
“Back in 1986 I happened to see a PBS broadcast of a solo performance in which Robert Hardy, the English actor, played Churchill. I made a VHS tape of it and put it in a box. Not long ago I watched it again and was transfixed. And I spent the next 18 months reading a great deal of Churchill’s own writing, as well as the biographies by William Manchester, Martin Gilbert and Violet Bonham Carter. I then borrowed the setting of Humes’ teleplay and began crafting my own portrait of this largely self-made man.”
Keaton discovered a complex character.
“His father was a British aristocrat — a strict disciplinarian forever dissatisfied with his son. His mother was an American socialite who liked spending money. And Winston, who in many ways was a 19th century soul in a 20th century world, really had to find his own way in life, trying many things in the process — becoming an officer in the British army, a statesman, a historian, a writer with a great mastery of the cadence of an English sentence, a painter and a man of great wit.”
Keaton’s “Churchill” is a memory play but it begins in March 1946, at what was one of the lowest points in the man’s life. After boldly leading his nation through World War II, Churchill was defeated for re-election in 1945. He was devastated, but then, sitting at home in forced retirement with his formidable wife, Clementine, he received an invitation from President Harry S. Truman to speak at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. On March 5, 1946, he delivered his “Iron Curtain” speech, where he prophetically observed the growth of the “Soviet sphere” and the new responsibilities facing the free world.
Resembling Churchill physically (“although not quite as large”), Keaton said he has a natural affinity with the man’s artistic nature and innate savvy, but is “much more health-conscious than the cigar-smoking Churchill, who also liked his Johnny Walker.”
Along with SoloChicago, Keaton has a couple of other projects in the hopper: “Whispers from the Moon,” a new musical (written with composer Bill Underwood) about an old hobo who lived in a train car, and an adaptation of “The Last Hurrah,” the Edwin O’Connor novel about a machine politician running for mayor.