Blood, sweat, tears and the triumph of Keaton’s “Churchill”
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When: Through Sept. 14
Where: Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln
Info: (773) 404-7336; http://www.greenhousetheater.org
Run time: 1 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission
Sir Winston Churchill was, by every measure, one of a kind. And the more you discover about him by way of actor-writer Ronald Keaton’s enthralling, immensely entertaining “Churchill” — the inaugural performance of SoloChicago [cq]Theatre, a new Equity enterprise devoted to the art of solo performance — the more you appreciate the quip he made on his 75th birthday: “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”
As it happened, Churchill (1874-1965), lived to be 90, moving from a youth planted firmly in the Victorian era, to an old age extending well into the Cold War years. In between, he was (for better and for worse) deeply engaged in many of the greatest conflagrations of those tumultuous decades, though surely his finest hour was when he was chosen to lead a coalition government as Prime Minister of Great Britain (1940-45), and unflinchingly led the Allied powers to victory over Nazi Germany.
Churchill was a man of action with no patience for the pacifist or appeaser (who he described as “one who feeds a crocodile hoping it will eat him last”). He was an unapologetic military man with a rebellious temperament, as well as a pragmatic politician who deftly shifted between the Conservative and Liberal parties based on both the issues at hand, and the simple fact that he wanted to get elected in order to get things done.
A man with a strong sense of his own destiny (underscored by several near-death battlefield experiences), Churchill also was one of those natural polymaths who could just dive in and find his way, whether as a journalist, historian, painter, inventor (he conceived an early form of the tank) or bricklayer. He liked the ladies, but he adored his wife, Clementine. He drank his share of Johnny Walker and smoked cigars. He prized “the cadence of an English sentence,” overcoming a lisp and a stutter to become a unique orator. And above all, he possessed a fearlessness and conviction that served him well in times of crisis.
Keaton, a veteran Chicago actor who has performed everything from musicals to Shakespeare, arrives on stage in the iconic Churchillian suit, with bow tie and watch fob, and the more you watch him and listen to him, the more he becomes the man himself. It is a triumphant performance (expertly directed by Kurt Johns), capturing the essence of the man without mimicry of any kind. And the actor’s script, based on Churchill’s writings and Dr. James C. Humes’ teleplay, “Winston Churchill,” is superbly moldulated to capture a multitude of moods and events, and the dramatic ups and downs of a long and remarkable life.
By the time we meet him, sitting at his easel, Churchill has delivered his landmark 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech at Missouri’s Westminster College, at the invitation of President Truman. In it he warned of the threats posed by the Soviet Union, the essential wartime ally for whom he had little love. (The full speech, uncannily brilliant, is must reading.) The play then takes us back to Churchill’s early life and suggests the formation of a man of unique character. Ready to lead in the darkest hour, he also understood that “The problems of victory are more agreeable than those of defeat, but they are no less difficult.”