KPBS AIRDATE: MARCH 9, 2001
Geniuses and heroes. We love to build them up; we love to bring them down. And perhaps ’twas ever thus. During the Second World War, one of the great minds of the century, English mathematician Alan Turing, created the first computer and cracked the crucial German Enigma code. But, like every classic tragic hero, his fatal flaw became his undoing. He was honest to a fault, and that cut short his career and his life. His crime against humanity? He broke the unwritten social code, openly admitting his homosexuality at a time and in a country where that was a criminal offense.
“Breaking the Code” is Turing’s disturbing story– a morality play, a cautionary tale, an exposé of high-level hypocrisy. Adapted from Andrew Hodges’ book, “Alan Turing: The Enigma,” the 1986 play is a series of flashbacks and fast-forwards, dramatizing Turing’s heroic rise –with personal praise from Churchill — to his catastrophic fall to the status of social pariah. Sadly, the saga didn’t end with Turing’s probation, media humiliation and forced treatment with female hormones. Britain’s Official Secrets Act imposed a 30-year embargo on his research. Until very recently, the world was deprived of his genius, which formed the basis of modern computers, programming techniques and artificial intelligence.
Exactly ten years ago, Ron Choularton starred in a forceful North Coast Repertory Theatre production of Hugh Whitemore’s taut drama. In her directorial debut, Rosina Reynolds was assistant director and Scott Coker played Turing’s young, doomed schoolmate, his first true love. Now, Reynolds has become a consummate director, Coker is terrific as the older, scruffy bar pickup, and miraculously, Choularton has grown even more compelling in the central role — and his first performance was pretty hard to top. He brilliantly conveys the rumpled, stuttering naiveté, the nail-biting social ineptitude, the electric intellectual energy and the furtive attraction to men. It’s a beautifully nuanced, masterful performance.
Equally convincing are Jillian Frost as Turing’s loving colleague and Jonathan Dunn-Rankin as the enigmatic head of the Enigma project. Reynolds’ direction is briskly effective, with Karen Filijan’s lighting making the time-traveling transitions smooth and effortless. This masks the choppy, episodic nature of the piece, which can be didactic and unsubtle at times. But less is more here in all the tech work. David Weiner’s set is a simple, simultaneous suggestion of a flat, an office and an early-tech workspace. Liam O’Brien’s costumes are also apt and evocative.
Ironic, isn’t it? Half a century later, we’re still trying to keep government out of our personal lives. Who knows what Turing might have accomplished, if he hadn’t been molested by his Big Brother.
©2001 Patté Productions Inc.