Monday, March 16, 2015

"Breaking the Code"

Breaking the Code
Hugh Whitemore

With the recent Academy-nominated film The Imitation Game, the story of World War II Enigma code-breaker and computer pioneer Alan Turing is now much more widely known than when Hugh Whitemore’s 1986 Breaking the Code premiered.  His play, however, brings to the 2015 audience aspects of Turing’s life not told in the film and also feels more authentic and certainly intimate than does the film (and does not create the film’s fiction storylines like a supposed spy among the team of code-breakers).

Spanning his teenage years until his death in 1954, Breaking the Code jumps with ease back and forth through Turing’s life and helps us to get to know him in relation to several of the key players of his life:  his Mom Sara, his boyhood friend Christopher, his Enigma manager Dilly, his best girlfriend-for-life Pat, and the hook-up Ron who leads to his demise.  Mr. Whitemore also tells us the story of Alan Turing in settings outside the laboratory where he seems most comfortable in talking about himself.  We return with him several times to his boyhood home, his boarding school, and his house; and it is in these settings along with across the desk from his boss and friend Dilly where Whitemore allows Turing to share, even through strained moments of stuttering and long pauses, his dreams, his secrets, and his deeply held beliefs (whether about God, machines, or Dostoevsky).  What makes this play so wonderful is that the Einstein-brilliant, socially awkward Alan Turning emerges as a human being and not just as an historical figure.  We are never far away from his mathematical, scientific mind, given Jon Wai-keung Lowe’s effective and versatile set whose walls and doors are blackboards covered in formulas and complicated sketches.  But in this telling of his life, Whitemore emphasizes not so much the brain or discoveries of Turing but the heart and personality of this shy, sensitive, stubborn, and sometimes silly Alan.  More telling, he exposes in truthful, believable, and moving ways the gay life and struggles of this historic hero.

As Turing, John Fisher is totally believable for each of the ages and stages of this man’s life.  He is the fingernail-chewing, shuffling boy whose adoring looks and knee touches tell us of his love for his best school chum Christopher.  He is the shrugging, defiant son who in one scene is so exasperated with his mom and in another is totally devoted.  He adeptly handles the penitent and guilty, the suave and sexy, and the broken and desperate parts of his character.  Mr. Fisher rises over and again to make Alan Turning a person we walk away knowing and caring about.

The rest of this troupe is also well-cast and well-directed (by Mr. Fisher, by the way).  Two are of particular note.  Val Henderson plays Dillwyn (Dilly) Knox, Turing’s manager at the highly secretive Bletchly Park during the War.  His firm and official side is balanced by a fatherly and understanding side that seems just right for the nervous, slow-to-open-up Turing.  He is bookended neatly in his advice and worry about Alan with the same coming from Celia Maurice as Sara, Turing’s mother.  Her Sara Turing can scold and pick at her son’s irritating habits (no matter his age), but she can also soften in a blink to offer him genuine support, love, and guidance.  Everyone in the play has moments of hesitation and irritation with Turing that we as audience can understand; but each also shows in their eyes, voices, or casual touches/glances their varying attractions and sympathies that we too are feeling. 

The abrupt ending is reminiscent of a famous apple-biting scene from Alan Turing’s Disney favorite Snow White.  Unfortunately, compared to the genuine, believable story told up to that point, it comes off as too melodramatic and almost silly for the true, tragic climax of Turing’s life.

Rating: 4 E’s

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