“In the long run,” says brilliant British mathematician Alan Turing, “it’s not breaking the code that matters. It’s where you go from there.”
Turing, who cracked the crucial German Enigma code during World War II, managed to wind up on parole, with his life and career destroyed because he broke the unwritten social code, openly admitting his homosexuality at a time and in a country where that was a criminal offense. We haven’t come such a long way, Baby. Just read the headlines.
Turing’s disturbing story is the theme of “Breaking The Code,” Hugh Whitemore’s taut drama, currently running at North Coast Repertory Theatre. It’s as much a story of a society as of a man. Most of all, a story of hypocrisy between public and private morality.
Turing’s tale didn’t end with his media humiliation and his forced treatment with female hormones. Britain’s Official Secrets Act imposed a 30-year embargo on his research. The world was cut off from his genius, from his seminal work in mathematical logic — the basis of modern computers, programming techniques and artificial intelligence.
Turing was effectively cut off, too. Three years after he naively admitted his homosexuality — to a policeman, no less — he took his own life, at age 42.
Adapted from Andrew Hodges’ book, “Alan Turing: The Enigma,” the play is a series of flashbacks and fast-forwards, dramatizing Turing’s life, his facility with thought, logic and problem-solving, and his difficulty with personal relations and social interactions. It’s a very powerful piece.
North Coast Rep gives it a strong production. All the weight is carried by the superb performance of Ron Choularton, who is masterful in showing the keen mind, the intellectual passion, the social ineptitude and uneasiness, and the uncompromising honesty that was Turing’s ultimate downfall. It’s a terrific performance.
Robert Larsen provides a very textured, layered portrayal of Killwyn Knox, head of the Enigma project, a kind of mentor for Turing who forgets a lot but knows a lot more.
The rest of the supporting cast is commendable, though Turing’s deep, penetrating moments of admission to his mother (played by Coralie Schatz) and a loving co-worker (played by Lynn Allison) just fall short of hitting raw nerve. The women don’t quite match Choularton’s emotional level or range.
Director Olive Blackistone’s staging is a bit too symmetrical and staccato, which only underscores the episodic structure of the piece. She builds real intensity and dramatic tension in the first act, but the pace slips and there’s a slight loss of momentum in Act Two.
Ocie Robinson’s set is enigmatic. There’s a kind of surrealism to his angular, corrugated steel construction. It doesn’t match the interior locales of any of the scenes, but it smacks of World War II, and of that huge airplane hangar Turing describes near his house, the setting for his frightening dream of being trapped inside a mechanical brain.
Marvin Read’s sound punctuates the scene changes with the heavy teletype-tapping of an encoder. There’s a minimalist feeling to the technical backup that doesn’t quite match John-Bryan Davis’ fine period costumes or Blackistone’s highly representational staging.
There are flaws in the production. But the play packs a wallop, sort of thwacking you with thoughts of homophobia, government secrecy and control, the destruction of public figures with their private lives, and the rigidity of antiquated social codes. Makes for some pretty provocative after-theater conversation.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1991 Patté Productions Inc.