Roy Dotrice is an extraordinary actor. Three years ago he took on Abraham Lincoln in a solo performance; now he has confronted an equally imposing personage, Winston Churchill, and brings him sharply to life in a one-man show which opened last night at Ford's Theatre.
Through miracles of makeup and character, Dotrice presents a convincing Churchill. But he is too lonely a figure on the stage. Playwright Samuel Gallu's device of using tape-recorded voices and imaginary characters to accompany Dotrice merely emphasizes his singleness. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is a satisfactory telephone pal, but Harry Hopkins, Charles de Gaulle, perhaps Clementine Churchill or even a military aide are needed in person and not just in concept.
The piece covers one year in Churchill's life, 1940-41, when he was prime minister of war-torn Great Britain. As it opens, he is ensconced in a "private lavoratory" in which he has secreted a direct line to the White House. He talks to FDR while seated on a closed toilet, at the outset complaining heartily about "this bloody Joseph Kennedy" that the American president had sent to London as his ambassador.
From then on Gallu moves from episode to episode, from Harry Hopkins bringing word that he would recommend FDR support Britain, to Churchill following battles over the telephone or listening to pilots on the radio during operations, or delivering a speech in Parliament. Occasionally he waxes reflective, remembering the nanny who was "the dearest and most intimate friend I ever had," and his distant parents, particularly the formal father who thought Churchill's "command of words too limited" for him to go into politics.
Complete with cigar and watch chain, his shoulders sloped like an old armchair, Dotrice gives us a Churchill who at 64 is showing signs of weariness but remains tough, uncompromising, caustic and heroic. When Hitler's speech attacking him as an egomaniac is broadcast on the radio, Churchill's response is in his deed: relieving himself, back turned to the audience, in his "private lavoratory." When Parliament is giving him a hard time, he thrashes them with great oratory.
Dotrice has the British actor's mastery of the pause. Too many American actors think that the effective pause must come at the end of the sentence, just prior to the succeeding one. In fact, the pause is best placed in the middle of the sentence, as when an anxious and emotional Churchill, reading Hopkins' response, which includes a quotation from the Biblical Ruth, says: " . . . thy people [pause] shall be my people."
One reason Churchill was a great figure was that he was a master of the English language, and not just in the witticisms like the famous exchange with Mrs. Bessie Braddock, seated next to him at a dinner party. (She said, "Mr. Churchill, you are very drunk." He said, "And you are very ugly. The difference is, I shall be sober tomorrow.") He shepherded a nation through war with his words, and they live on in classic brilliance.
The problem with the play is that it is too episodic to support an emotional connection with the central figure. Without supporting characters to sustain dramatic action, the playwright evidently felt the need to keep moving on, and the result is an entertaining, if superficial, history lesson. At times Churchill comes across as a man who, in moments of great stress or tragedy, can only deliver epigrams. The recurring depressions that Churchill was afflicted with are mentioned, but not really seen, as are his complex and often troubled relations with his children.
Dotrice is a superb craftsman who manages to capture Churchill without caricaturing him. There's sweat and toil and even a few tears here; all that's needed is the blood.
CHURCHILL, produced and written by Samuel Gallu. Directed by Frank Hauser; set by Anne A. Gibson; lighting by Charles H. Firmin; makeup by Bob Laden. With Roy Dotrice.
At Ford's Theatre through Nov.14.