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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Lin-Ronald Keaton
Photo by Jason Epperson

Even the biggest of men can seem small in the right—or wrong—circumstances. In the SoloChicago production of his play Churchill, which just opened at New World Stages, Ronald Keaton works scrupulously hard to bring one of the most towering figures of the 20th century down to our level. And he succeeds all too well.

There's no question that in his writing and performing this adaptation of Churchill's "life and words" and James C. Humes's teleplay Winston Churchill, Keaton summons the spirit of Churchill beautifully. Stout of figure and voice, he projects a judicious authority, a distinctly English, no-nonsense jolliness, and the simple power needed to prosecute the darkest depths of World War II from a platform of even-keeled reality.

It's Keaton's depiction of Churchill's forceful optimism that best sells this. In letting us see the spine of steel, he shows the attitude that's necessary to win wars and hearts alike. Being in his presence, you feel the calming reassurance of smart power smartly applied, in a way that's rare (if not outright nonexistent) today. This doesn't mean that, at times, the mask doesn't threaten to slip, but the command Keaton's Churchill displays over himself is no less rigorous or total than that he holds over us, so worry scarcely enters the picture.

By being so convincing, Keaton doesn't just propel you into Churchill's sphere, he sends you back to a time when monumental achievements weren't just a matter of course, but were necessary for survival. That urgency lurks around the fringes of the play and Keaton's portrayal, but it's always there, and a crucial element in helping you absorb exactly what was at stake in a time and permanent state of emergency that younger people today (including myself, admittedly) can have a difficult time imagining.

It's in moving from Churchill the legend to Churchill the man that Keaton is rather less successful. Introducing us to his cherished hobby of painting—that is, in fact, how we first encounter him—or explaining how he met and won his wife or revealing to us the extent of his personal background as the son of another prominent politician from an earlier age does indeed humanize him. But such injections are mundane to the point of distraction, and don't so much distill Churchill's essence as detract from it.

The Churchill who was created by the trying times in which he lived is far more interesting, and instructive, than the one who's just like us. We know all too well how we falter when facing adversity; we need a model for overcoming it that a kinder, more loving Churchill is not well equipped to provide. This casts a chillier pall on the first act than the second, which benefits significantly from the infusion of WWII drama and the imminence of the threat to England's (and our) way of life. But throughout, Keaton strives to reveal both halves of his character, without ever quite convincing us they were, in fact, equal. It's Churchill's domineering successes as one of the chief leaders of the Allies that are his unique claim to history. Anything else here seems off-point.

That these scenes, as with many bioplays, tend to disintegrate into collections of the man's most famous barbs and quips ("If you were my wife, I'd drink it"—you know the drill) also doesn't help. Keaton's writing doesn't even close to mimicking the wit of the real Churchill, and it doesn't have to, but it's so short on laughs and energy that the difference makes the evening as a whole far rockier than it should be.

Director Kurt Johns's staging on the coolly homey Downing Street set by Jason Epperson (who also did the lights) is spare, but doesn't much focus our attention tighter on the legend ostensibly standing before us. By restricting his projections to just a few key moments, such as illustrating the march of the Nazis across Europe, Paul Deziel highlights the benefit of understatement.

The rest of Churchill could stand to learn that lesson a bit more strongly. Great men and women don't always need to speak much; their actions, and the impact they have on the world, does all the necessary speaking for them. Keaton's Churchill, alas, too often doesn't seem great enough; it's entirely possible that, by saying less, he would end up saying a lot more about a man of whom too much can never be said.

Through May 31
New World Stages / Stage 5, 340 West 50th Street Between 8th and 9th Avenues
Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes with one intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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