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A CurtainUp Review

. . .as the Allies were pouring across the Rhine, I received a phone call from Washington. I turned to my wife: "It's terrible news. The President of the United States is dead. Your friend and mine, Clemmie, He died upon the wings of victory. But he saw those wings. . .and he heard them beating."
— Winston Churchill, reflecting on the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt
Ronald Keaton (Photo: Jason Epperson)
Churchill, adapted and performed by Ronald Keaton, and directed by Kurt Johns, arrives at New World Stages after a successful Chicago run. This lates biographical solo brings more charm than bite to the inspirational leader who became a "savior" of civilization at the cusp of World War II and whose eloquence still echoes today.

Keaton references many of the major peak and valleys of Churchill's long career. While remaining faithful to biographical facts,he manages to tuck in morsels from Churchill's private world, thus casting him in a gentler and more humane light.

A Prologue that serves as a warm-up finds Keaton, who bears a faint resemblance to Churchill, at an easel paintbrush in hand. This isn't the lionizing Churchil. As he puts it "This may be the only activity in my life that I actually conduct in silence." No stentorian tones or heroic posturing here. This is Churchill as amateur painter, simply talking about the hobby that would serve as his antidote for his recurring "black dog" depression (a termcoined by Churchill during his years in exile during the 1920s and 30s).

The time is March 1946, following the much celebrated leader's ironic defeat as prime minister in a general election (Labour leader Clement Attlee won with a majority of 145 seats). Keaton takes us to Westminster College where Churchill's acceptance speech for an honorary degree includes his famous "Iron Curtain" phrase. That speaking engagement is used as a lens into Churchill's somber state of mind and to pinpoint that, if not at the close of the his political career, the war hero is entering a period that invites reflection. And reflect Churchill does during the series of flashbacks and reminisces that make upthe rest of the play.

Jason Epperson's set is part realism, part impressionistic, and altogether effective. Aside from the easel and canvas in the Prologue, the main props are a large table covered with a red cloth center stage, a pitcher of water and a glass, plain chairs and a single "wing" chair. Along the back wall of the stage is a huge window that will change its vista, chameleon-like to reflect whatever subject Keaton is reminiscing on: family member or friend, his country home Chartwell,, or any of countless venues where Churchill would make an indelible mark.

Everything fades in and out of view as if emerging from the mists of memory, and then dissolving away again. Epperson does double-duty as light designer here, creating soft pools of light as Keaton traverses the stage, delivering his yarns and snatches of famous speeches.

If the play which uses the teleplay by Dr. James C. Humes and Churchill's writing as its source ,has a shortfall, it is that Churchill is presented through rose-colored glasses. What we get only skims the surface without broaching . the darker side of Churchill's personality ior what made him really tick and overcome what seemed like insurmountable obstacles.

In all fairness, the Dardanelles disaster —-Churchill's most glaring military failure — isn't omitted. But Keaton goes lightly over that it's the event that led most Brits to speculate that Churchill had no future as a politician. It was only when Neville Chamberlain resigned as prime minister in 1940, that Churchill's career was remarkably resurrected.

Keaton is at his best when summoning up those persons from Churchill's innermost circle who shaped and molded him as a young boy and youth. What comes to the fore is that Churchill was born into an aristocratic British family with a real legacy to uphold. Not only was he a descendant of the great Duke of Marlborough, but son of Lord Randolph Churchill, a member of Parliament who served with brilliant distinction. Unsurprisingly, this became a double-edged sword for Churchill. He suffered from a terrible lisp and stuttered as a child. He also was a poor student who often failed at entrance exams to prestigious schools that his parents had hoped to enroll him in. A turning point came when the older Churchill aftgter observving his son's absorption while playing with toy soldiers encouraged him to pursue the military in earnest. As Keaton engagingly recounts it, Churchill did brush up on his military history and world geography squeaked his way through the entrance examsthe Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

Another endearing anecdote concerns his beloved nanny and childhood confidante, Mrs. Everest, whom he called "Womany." It was under her care that Churchill developed his keen love and finely tuned ear for the English language. Mrs. Everest would read a poem to him every night before tucking him in, and the cadences of the great classic poetry would remain with him for the rest of his life (with Churchill continuing the practice on his own for years afterwards). And considering that Churchill eventually won the Nobel Peace Prize for literature in 1953 confirms Mrs. Everest's impact on his impressionable young life?

Colorful episodes from Churchill's public life are presented with competence, infectious enthusiasm, and a wink. There's an eloquent tribute to F. D. R upon his death. Though Churchill was often sharply criticized for not attending Roosevelt's funeral, he gave an eloquent h tribute. Witty comments about House of Commons colleagues include to descriptions of them as not unlike Barnum's sideshow freaks and "boneless wonders." .

Admittedly, Keaton soft-pedals the icon. but while he might not peel the onion Churchill is a heart-warming interpretation of one of history's true originals.

Adapted and Performed by Ronald Keaton
Based on the teleplay by Dr. James C. Humes and Churchill's writings
Directed by Kurt Johns
Adapted and performed by Jason Epperson
Directed by Kurt Johns
Scenic and Lighting Design by Jason Epperson
Projection Design by Paul Deziel
Sound Design by Eric Backus
Stage Manager: Jason Shivers
Running time: Approximately 2 hours with one intermission.
New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street 212-239-620
From 2/06/15; opening 2/18/15/; closing 9/13/15
Mondays at 7pm, Wednesday through Saturday evenings at 8pm, with matinees Thursday and Saturday at 2:30pm and Sunday at 3pm
Tickets: $65
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan at February 12th press preview
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