Winston Churchill, inarguably one of the most effective political figures of all time, had a palpable affection for the United States of America. That came in part from his being the child of an American mother in an era when those trans-Atlantic marriages were much less common, certainly among those who fancied themselves born to the British ruling class. As things turned out, of course, that affection served the globe well, not least because the British prime minister had complete confidence that the new world would, when Hitler seemed ascendant and the chips were down, come racing to the rescue of the old. And the surety and warmth of a Churchillian embrace was a not-insignificant factor in why the new world did.
Tony Blair, for the record, had a similar affection for these United States while in office. That was born more of time spent stateside as a student, but it also came with historic, collision-building import.
That so-called special relationship between presidents (some) and prime ministers (some) is front and center in Ron Keaton's very enjoyable and surprisingly emotional new one-man show, "Churchill," not least because Keaton — who wrote the piece for himself to perform under the direction of Kurt Johns — sets his biographical exploration of the great man in 1946. Churchill, his triumphant war cabinet disbanded and the British electorate seemingly less than grateful for his leadership during the Allies' victory over the Nazis, came to the United States to talk at Westminster College in tiny Fulton, Mo., at the invitation of President Harry Truman. The two arrived there by train, drinking Scotch on the way.
This choice of time and place not only allows for reflection — reflection was precisely the mood Churchill was in at the time — but it readily permits Keaton-as-Churchill to translate British political history for the American audience heading in to the Greenhouse Theater Center in Lincoln Park without that ever seeming forced.
In that Westminster College speech, officially (and tautologically) titled "The Sinews of Peace," Churchill coined the phrase "The Iron Curtain," which would then serve as the rhetorical device of choice for the post-war landscape of Europe, even in the Iron Curtain's eventual collapse. That famous phrase is in Keaton's two-hour show, but the emphasis of the piece mainly is on Churchill's informal reflections on his life and times.
For those of us who've watched Keaton, a journeyman Chicago actor and musician, for decades, his ascent to the Churchillian is something of a surprise.
Keaton has typically played comic roles in his long career, mostly in Chicago musicals. I suspect there will be some Churchill aficionados — and Chicago has many of those — who will come to this show and find Keaton more vulnerable than they might expect such an awe-inspiring historical figure to be. But there's foundation in the record for that. Ignored as a child and very much in the shadow of the rhetoric and eloquence of his lineage, Churchill did not have the easiest of lives. And as Keaton's piece reminds us, there were plenty of well-respected figures (on both sides of the Atlantic) advocating for some level of appeasement of Hitler during the nascent years of the
Churchill was, like many political giants, something of a lonely figure, his long marriage to the former Clementine Hozier notwithstanding. Certainly, as interpretations of the man go, Keaton focuses on the warmer side. But that is a useful counterpoint to the more common hagiographies, which tend to focus on his resolution and personal strength.
A kinder, gentler Churchill? Well, why not? Such a show, which draws from a very ample historical record (Churchill did not hesitate to put pen to paper and neither did his biographers) and does not contain any significant revelations, must have a distinct and practical point of view. Keaton is blessed (and maybe occasionally cursed) with being eminently likable on stage. Thus his Churchill is neither gruff nor imposing, but human. And, in that way, great company for a couple of hours of straightforward summer theater.
It's also worth noting that time marches on, and that while Churchillians are everywhere (and tend to make themselves known) there are plenty of people whose knowledge of what this man did is, to say the least, limited. The very first scene feels awkward and the end needs more certitude. But this earnest, honest and deeply reflective piece of original Chicago theater fills in those blanks even as it reminds us of how, in politics as in business, integrity, courage and relationships are what matter the most.
When: Through Nov. 9
Where: Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 2 hours