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First Folio Theatre hosts ‘Churchill’

Ronald Keaton plays Winston Churchill in “Churchill: A Tribute” at First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook. The Evanston resident and accomplished actor wrote and stars in the performance.

Ronald Keaton plays Winston Churchill in “Churchill: A Tribute” at First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook. The Evanston resident and accomplished actor wrote and stars in the performance.

Facts

‘Churchill: A Tribute’ First Folio Theatre, Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st St., Oak Brook 8 p.m. Feb. 11, April 30 and May 2; 3 and 8 p.m. May 3 $25 (630) 986-8067; www.firstfolio.org

In his more than four decades as an actor, Ronald Keaton has established himself as one of Chicago’s most dependable and versatile character actors. He’s one of those indelible players whose name might not be familiar, but whose face is instantly recognizable to Chicago area theatergoers.

He’s a consummate ensemble player. But “Churchill: A Tribute” may be Keaton’s finest hour. The one-man show, which he created and stars in as Winston Churchill, will be staged at First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook on Feb. 11 at 8 p.m. Such is the demand for tickets that performances in April and May have been added.

“This project means the world to me,” Keaton enthused. “I’m very proud of it.”

In the play, set in Fulton, Mo., Keaton portrays the venerable statesman. President Harry Truman has invited Churchill to speak at Westminster College. Here, Churchill reflects on his life and career, triumphs and setbacks.

Despite his career as an ensemble actor, Keaton has always had an affinity and interest in solo performance. The first professional theater he saw after he moved to Chicago was James Whitmore in “Will Rogers’ USA.” “To see one man steer the audience; I was mesmerized,” he marveled.

True story: Following a run at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami in 1989, Keaton was flying back to Chicago. Seated a few rows ahead of him was none other than Whitmore. “I introduced myself,” Keaton said. “No one was sitting next to him so we talked the entire flight. He was very kind. He told me that (for character actors) the jobs will always be there and you have to just go where the jobs are.”

“Churchill” is a job that Keaton was compelled to create for himself. “The older an actor gets, the more he has to rely on his own reinvention,” he said. “You need to continue finding ways to make what you do viable and meaningful for yourself.”

Keaton, an Evanston resident who allows that he’s “past 60,” is setting the stage for the next phase of his career at an age when some actors might be contemplating retirement. “I can’t imagine that,” he said.

He has high ambitions for “Churchill.” He is learning how to book and market the show in the service of creating a professional theatre devoted to solo performance. “If you’re going to dream,” he said, “dream big.”

For now, “Churchill” is something of a dream come true. The performance at First Folio will be his second. The premiere performance last September at the Capitol Theatre in Burlington, Ia., “was one of the great nights of my life,” he said. “At the end of the performance, people leapt to their feet. It was so gratifying. I went backstage and cried like a baby.”

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Facts

‘Churchill: A Tribute’ First Folio Theatre, Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st St., Oak Brook 8 p.m. Feb. 11, April 30 and May 2; 3 and 8 p.m. May 3 $25 (630) 986-8067; www.firstfolio.org
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