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First Nighter: Ronald Keaton Makes an Imposing 'Churchill'

02/15/2015 06:04 pm ET | Updated Apr 17, 2015

When I was at college, a favorite pastime of mine was sitting around with a bunch of other procrastinators keen on determining the most important person of the 20th century. I maintained it was Winston Churchill.

(Today I might nominate Bill Wilson, who founded Alcoholics Anonymous and thereby saved millions of lives, perhaps even surpassing Churchill's numbers, but that's a story for another time.)

I wasn't alone in the choice. Churchill's work as first lord of the admiralty during the First World War and, of course more significantly, his accomplishments as Great Britain's prime minister during World War II stood out. More than that, as a statesmen and historian he was someone of great knowledge (though he never attended university) and quick wit.

When he was in good humor, which he apparently was when out in casual company, he must have been welcome as a great man and anecdotalist. Spending an evening with him when he was discussing his life and times had to have been not only amusing but also rewarding.

This is what happens with Churchill, Ronald Keaton's solo show, at New World Stages. Bearing a strong resemblance to the roundish, three-piece-suited world figure (if not quite getting the guttural voice at precisely the right pitch), Keaton -- who adapted the play from Churchill's written and spoken words and from Winston Churchill, Dr. James C. Humes's teleplay -- takes two acts to address the audience about himself mostly chronologically.

The conceit is that he's addressing an American crowd, and for the most part he's the affable party guest. Only when he gets to certain aspects of World War II and recites part of the nation-uniting speeches he gave does he become the figure adamantly insisting that blood, sweat and tears will be required to fight on land, sea and in the air.

Keaton has chosen to begin his discourse while painting at an easel. Churchill declares that only there is he ever silent. Then, leaving the canvas on which he's daubing, he proves his aversion to silence without a doubt. He begins ambling about Jason Epperson's set, which has an imposing desk at its center and a couple of chairs left and right that are infrequently occupied. (Paul Deziel designed the myriad projections that appear on a back wall and always give the impress of scenes viewed from a many mullioned window.)

Holding an unlighted cigar for much of the time and a cane only at the end, Churchill talks about Randolph, his aristocratic British father, and Jenny Jerome, his American mother. He even says that if their nationalities had been reversed, he might have gotten to these shores much earlier.

He talks about the ups and downs of his past, not without displaying bitterness about the downs. Discussing the end of World War II, he's not above giving Clement Atlee, his successor as prime minister, a subtle zinger. He goes into his differences with Charles de Gaulle as well as with Dwight Eisenhower, although he makes it clear he had it much easier with the latter than the former.

When he reminisces about Franklin D. Roosevelt, however, his tone changes greatly. As Keaton plays him, the only time this Churchill becomes teary is on learning the news of Roosevelt's death just weeks before World War II ended.

He's already talked about his relief when the United States entered the war after Pearl Harbor and also after he recalls that Joseph P. Kennedy, ambassador to the court of St. James, had encouraged placating Adolf Hitler. Kennedy, Churchill states, expected Germany to win the war.

As he wanders back and forth -- oh, yes, director Kurt Johns definitely wants to keep things on the move -- Keaton has Churchill talk about his major loves, which include his painting, his wife Clementine and the English language. HIs major dislike has to be Adolf Hitler, for whom he reserves some choice pejoratives.

Since this is Churchill speaking through Keaton, it may be the world leader's devotion to language and the masterful manner in which he uses it that comes across most piercingly. He had a way with words and never was at a loss for them, certainly not when framing a retort to any remark he took as an insult. The skill with a quick tongue alone makes him a delightful person to pass the time with. Keaton makes that point above all others.