Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Great Briton: Ronald Keaton Ministers a Prime 'Churchill' as Local Reign Nears End -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Adapted and performed by Ronald Keaton
The Greenhouse Theater Center, Chicago
Thru September 13

50 years after his death, Winston Churchill continues to cast a large shadow over not only Great Britain and Europe, but the United States as well.

In London, I have enjoyed visiting the Churchill Museum & Cabinet War Rooms (now simply called Churchill War Rooms), hearing the Prime Minister's stout wartime leadership extolled on a tour of St. Paul's Cathedral and seeing a signature hat Sir Winston left behind at the James J. Fox cigar store. 

But just as enlightening, in 2006 I augmented a road trip to St. Louis by visiting the Winston Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri.

Wonderfully housed in a relocated and rebuilt 16th century Christopher Wren-designed English church, the museum is on the campus of Westminster College, commemorating the 1946 "Sinews of Peace" speech Churchill delivered in the school's now-landmarked gymnasium.

That speech, in which Churchill famously used the term "Iron Curtain" in the context of Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe, was given at the invitation of U.S. President--and Missouri native--Harry S Truman after Churchill had failed to win re-election as British Prime Minister in 1945. (He would again serve as PM from 1951-55.)

Though Churchill had visited the United States as early as 1895--his mom, Jennie Jerome was an American--and, despite battling both a lisp and stutter, was sufficiently regarded for his oratory skills that on a 1900 speaking tour of the U.S. he was introduced to and by Mark Twain, the 1946 speech in Fulton serves as the jumping off point for Ronald Keaton's fine one-man play, Churchill.

Keaton, a veteran Chicago actor with the baldness and girth to well-embody his subject, had a nice run with the Kurt Johns-directed SoloChicago production in 2014 at the Greenhouse Theater Center on Lincoln Avenue, where it has returned after running for several months Off-Broadway in New York earlier this year.

I have no good reason why, despite stellar reviews, I had not gotten to Churchill until noting its Chicago reprise is ending this Sunday, but availed myself of a HotTix discount for last Sunday's matinee. (Discounts remain for the few upcoming performances.)

Thanks to a hefty amount of history and humor, the 2-hour biographical showcase is largely a joy.

Adopting an effective British accent, Keaton begins painting his portrait of Churchill by sitting at an easel as the multi-talented politician engages one of his most relished pursuits: painting.

Soon, Sir Winston tells of being invited for the "Sinews of Peace" speech, and I wondered if a theatrical reciting of the actual address would follow.

In some regards that may have been cool, but Keaton uses the conceit of speaking to a gathering in the Westminster College gym to deliver a fuller overview of Churchill's life, accomplishments and famed witticisms.

Though some of the facts I had come upon before, including on Wikipedia, I valued hearing Keaton as Churchill speak of his beloved nanny, military service in Cuba (where he developed his love of cigars), Sudan, India and elsewhere, great respect for Irish leader Michael Collins even as England and Ireland were at odds, how Winston met his wife Clementine and his adherence to a Golden Rule:

"Do what you like; like what you do."

Keaton also delectably works in Churchill's famed retort upon a political rival saying to him, "If you were my
husband I'd put poison in your coffee" before powerfully ending Act I on the cusp of World War II.

As one might assume, Act II references Churchill's ascendancy to Prime Minister and makes mention of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler, Charles De Gaulle and Generals Patton, Eisenhower and Montgomery. I found an anecdote about American Ambassador to the UK, Joseph Kennedy Sr., and his advice to Churchill especially revelatory, and even among wartime remembrances great quips continued to abound from the great man.

While I won't reveal who it derided, "He was a modest man with much to be modest about," is just one example of how Keaton--who, through exhaustive research, adapted (i.e. wrote for the stage) all the words he spoke--captured the spirit of Winston Churchill while making a history lesson a whole lot of fun.

Excepting perhaps Abraham Lincoln, Churchill is likely the historical world leader I most admire, in part because--like (non-politicians) Twain, Oscar Wilde, Will Rogers, Yogi Berra, etc.--of how eminently quotable he remains, but also due to what I've learned about the morale-boosting resiliency with which he led during the most troubling of times.

Keaton is to be highly commended for conveying both aspects--and many more--of Winston Churchill in a way that comes off as engaging, not laborious or dryly professorial.

I'm sorry I took me so long to see it--and thus review it--but if you can get to the Greenhouse Theater Center before the current reign of Churchill comes to an end this Sunday, I suggest you do.

"Blood, toil, tears and sweat" have rarely been offered more winsomely--or Winstonly. 

1 comment:

Ken said...

I received some of my best advice from Sir Winston. I'm particularly fond of this nugget he bequithed to graduates from his alma mater Harrow:

"Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy."