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Andrew Edlin portrays Winston Churchill's struggles as the prime minister considered resignation

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FARMINGTON — Don't make the mistake of referring to actor Andrew Edlin as a Winston Churchill impersonator. You're not likely to get a genial response.

"They get a very distinct frosty look from me," Edlin said, describing those encounters. "That's not what I'm here to do. You can call Will Ferrell if you want an impersonator."

Edlin, a native Englishman and Oxford graduate who emigrated to the United States in 1990, will perform his one-man show "Churchill" this weekend in Farmington. The play is based on the life of the legendary British prime minister, and Edlin premiered it in 1997 after spending three years writing and researching it.

Over the years, he estimates he's performed the play between 100 and 200 times, though he described it as still a work in progress, something he's constantly refining. Despite that evolution, and his quick acknowledgement that Churchill was less than perfect, Edlin has become more than a little protective of the man's legacy. He bristles at the many portrayals of Churchill in popular culture that the actor believes have done him an injustice.

"Actors should not make lazy choices," Edlin said during a telephone interview earlier this week from his adopted hometown of Fairfield, Iowa, invoking perhaps the first rule of thespianism. "I do think some of the people who have portrayed Churchill have made that error."

That flawed interpretation, he said, usually results in a performance that portrays Churchill in a cartoonish fashion — "a clumsy drunk who is rude to people," as Edlin characterizes it. While Churchill no doubt enjoyed drinking and was famous for his sharp rejoinders, neither of those facets of his personality defined a man whose leadership and spirit came to epitomize Allied resistance to the threat of fascism during World War II, Edlin said.

The real Churchill, he maintains, had a larger-than-life personality and a gift for making speeches that resonated deeply with his countrymen. Those qualities dwarfed his personal shortcomings, Edlin said.

"You have this character who was very much loved and utterly trusted by people that he would see them through (Nazi aggression)," he said.

But the core of Churchill's character, he said, was his courage.

"That is something we don't tend to value," he said. "It's not something we consider core to a politician's life. But I see that in everything he does."

Edlin's take on the famed British statesman and leader is only one in an increasingly crowded field. Churchill has been portrayed literally dozens, if not hundreds, of times in films, TV series and literature over the years, with some of those depictions being less than flattering. Edlin isn't shy about evaluating the performances of his fellow actors in that role, saving his highest praise for Gary Oldman in the 2017 film "Darkest Hour" and Richard Burton in 1974's "The Gathering Storm."

He was particularly impressed by the latter, explaining that Burton made no attempt to mimic Churchill's distinctive "speech voice" — a deliberate, deeply resonant tone and cadence the PM used during his public addresses to ensure his words could be understood by the millions of people listening on the radio — and instead spoke, well, just like Richard Burton.

"He just relied on his astonishing gravitas as an actor, and he made it perfectly believable," Edlin said. "I just look at him in awe as he's doing that."

Edlin is dismissive of the 2017 film "Churchill" with Brian Cox in the starring role, a movie that drew heavy criticism for the liberties it took with historical accuracy. And he seems largely baffled by the decision to cast American actor John Lithgow as Churchill in the popular Netflix series "The Crown," focusing on the obvious physical differences between the two men.

"Lithgow is 6-foot-4 and Churchill was 5-8 on a good day," Edlin said, explaining that producers have compensated for that difference by having the former portray the latter in a stooped-over fashion. "That gave him a physicality that was all wrong. … I just think it was a very, very curious casting choice."

While Edlin doesn't compare the quality of his acting to that of Oldman in "Darkest Hour," he believes his play and that film are kindred spirits in that they endeavor to present a portrait of Churchill at crucial points in his life. "Darkest Hour" represents Churchill's heroic efforts to rally his fellow Britons in the early days of World War II, while Edlin's play conveys an 80-year-old Churchill's decision-making process as he struggles with the issue of whether to resign as prime minister. Edlin describes the two productions as the bookends of Churchill's career as the PM.

The depth of Churchill's leadership is something we simply don't see anymore, the actor said.

"I think it's very simple in that way," he said. "Somewhere along the line, we seem to have lost the ability to produce good leaders. We produce good bureaucrats, good managers, good populists — for a short time, anyway — and good generals. But we don't have the ability to produce good leaders who command our love and trust. It's a skill set that seems to be in short supply."

Edlin said when he wrote his play, he never considered the possibility he might still be portraying Churchill 22 years later.

"But I thought I might get bored with it," he acknowledged. "Fortunately, that's never happened. In fact, I enjoy it more than I ever have."

"Churchill" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 4 at the Farmington Civic Center, 200 W. Arrington St. Tickets range from $8 to $18. Call 505-599-1148.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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