BWW Reviews: Revealing BREAKING THE CODE at Barrington Stage Co
There's some real genius on stage as the resurrected 1986 biographical play BREAKING THE CODE gets a complete rethinking by Joe Calarco in a dazzling production at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA. It is the top contender for best play so far in the Berkshire's summer theatre season. Everything about this production is fresh, new and rewarding.
The original play was created as a vehicle for Sir Derek Jacobi and details the secret life of mathematician and theoretical computer genius Alan Turing (1912-1954) who was instrumental in breaking the Nazi's fiendlshly complicated Enigma Code, thereby shortening World War II and saving thousands of lives. But Turing was also a homosexual in a time where such people were not only vilified, but had their careers and lives destroyed.
Turing, a British code-breaker during World War II was later subjected to chemical castration for homosexual activity, though in 2013 he received a Royal Pardon, 60 years after he committed suicide.
In 1937 he published a paper introducing an idea that came to be known as the Turing machine, which is considered to have formed the basis of modern computing. This was a hypothetical device that could come up with a solution to any problem that is computable. The prestigious A.M. Turing Award - sometimes called the "Nobel Prize" of Computing - was named after Turing.
In the Barrington Stage production Turing is played be the remarkable Mark H. Dold, who is best remembered for his role in FREUD'S LAST SESSION which had long runs in both the Berkshires and New York City. In capturing the events leading up to Turing's ultimate suicide, his portrayal is so deep and integrated that we come to believe that every stammer, every tic is genuine, and the scientist's peculiarities are simply part of the geekish behavior of someone totally absorbed in his work. It's an overused phrase and compliment, but if you want to see someone deliver a true tour-de-force, this BREAKING THE CODE is it.
Calarco keeps the whole cast on stage most of the time. They sit in straight-backed wooden chairs lining the sides of the raked platform where the action takes place.They take part in the action on stage but as they sit and observe, they may not speak, but they communicate volumes as they move about, sometimes watching Turing closely, sometimes turning away deliberately but still listening, sometimes grouping together, sometimes even reaching out to silently hand him props at crucial moments. When they all leave at the end of Act I, it is symbolic of Turing's sense of abandonment as his world collapses.
As this fascinating story unfolds, we meet an octet of other people important to his life: his mother, Sara (Deborah Hedwall); his best friend and schoolboy crush Christopher Morcom (Mike Donovan, who also plays Nikos, a young Greek man with whom Turing has an fling while on vacation in Corfu); Detective Sergeant Mick Ross (Kyle Fabel); Ron Miller (Jefferson Farber), the young man whose affair with Turing leads to his arrest and convinction on charges of gross indecency; Dillwyn Dilly Knox (Philip Kerr), the leader of the code breaking team at Bletchley Park; Patricia Pat Green (Annie Meisels), a Bletchley colleague to whom Turing almost becomes engaged; and a mysterious government agent who claims he is really named John Smith (John Leonard Thompson.) Whitemore uses real names in all cases, except for Pat Green - based on Joan Clarke (1917-1996) - and Ron Miller - based on Arnold Murray.
BREAKING THE CODE is designed as a bit of a puzzle starting in the middle, going back and forth in time and ending at the beginning, with his first true love. And while there are scenes depicting his sexual orientation, the playwright also gives the audience a chance to understand the secret work that he did in the war, and his relationships with his colleagues and family.
During WWII Turing was recruited to work on a secret project at Bletchley Park and signed off on Britain's Official Secrets Act as did the thousands recruited there. They were forbidden to discuss their work with colleagues, spouses, relatives or friends. It would be decades before their findings and files were declassified. There was no public recognition of their part in the war effort. Churchill acknowledged that Turing played an essential role in shortening if not ending the war.
As we are drawn into the story, we see that the tendency of people to call Turing under-appreciated in his own time is just a euphemism for being bullied to death. As Dold takes on the persona of Turing on stage, he stammers badly when talking to "normal" people who had no interest or idea about the work he was doing, nor how they and the British police system made his late life a total misery. Their only interest in Turing was to get him to conform. Being gay was only part of it. His problems also multiplied because of being totally objective, honest and, in essence, a total geek . This in a world that sought the mediocrity of social conformity and constantly told little white lies to keep up the pretenses of the times. Turing's speech may have been hesitant at times, but it was also guileless and direct. This artful combination is so perfectly portrayed by Dold that you become aware that such a combination would be enough to make someone an "oddball" to most people even today. Some claim Turing had Asperger's but as Dold portrays him he simply listens to his own drummer. It is also true that a scientific brain is something most people have no direct experience with, so they just think it is not normal. A scientist welcomes surprises, and explores the reasons behind them. Science does not condemn, it simply observes and reports.
One of the interesting points the playwright makes is that in the 1950′s gay men would have a fling whilst in University, and then upon graduating, find a suitable female "companion" and then later settle down in order to give the appearance of leading a normal life. In the legendary PBS series BRISESHEAD REVISITED, this is exactly what happens. Turing played a bit at this but found it dishonest.
Turing had great surety in his own genius, which director Joe Calarco highlighted brilliantly by having the transparent panels filled with mathematical theories and equations that bracketed the stage and flew over Turnig's head light up when he spoke of his work - his passion. The staging is not suggested in the original script and can be credited to both Calarco, the director and Brian Prather who designed the illuminated setting.
As you enter the theatre you find yourself riveted by the zen blackness of the stage, a single apple illuminated on a simple tabble. (Turing would eat one apple every night before retiring, it was one of his rituals. And in the end he eats an apple dipped in cyanide.) When the play begins, we get a peek into his mind, as scenic designer Brian Prather lights up moving and stationary acrylic panels with mathematical formulas and writings from theoretical physics that seek to define intelligence, reason and rationality in black and white terms.
The soundscapes created by Lindsay Jones gave the first act a subtle undertone which changed as the relationships changed. Almost subliminal, there were deep tones when Turing worked on his projects, as if to signal his deep interest in the problems being solved, while his painful interactions with police inspectors and supervisors raised the tones to higher, more neurotic levels where we could actually feel his stress as he underwent his grilling and attempts to fit in.
Wrapped up in BREAKING THE CODE is a swath of history, a wealth of information about the birth of computers, and some of the most unforgettable characters you are likely to meet. And if you have never heard about Alan Turing before, or the "love that dare not speak its name," perhaps you owe it to yourself to see this brilliant production. It shows how we as a civilization sometimes allow irrational fear to destroy those who have advanced civilization the most. You will come away illuminated, and perhaps even stunned at the genius of Mark H. Dold in his portrayal of a once vilified loner who not only helped end a war, but was a major contributor to our current digital age.
Barrington Stage Company presents Breaking the Code by Hugh Whitemore, Directed by Joe Calarco, Scenic Design by Brian Prather, Costume Design by Jennifer Caprio; Lighting Design by Chris Lee, Original music and sound design by Lindsay Jones, Wig Design by Rob Greene & J. Jared Janas, Voice and Dialect Coaching by Wendy Waterman, Director of Production - Jeff Roudabush; Prodction Stage Manager - Michael Andrew Rodgers, Casting by Pat McCorkle, CSA.
Cast: Alan Turing - Mark H. Dold ; Christopher Morcom/Nikos - Mike Donovan; Mick Ross - Kyle Fabel; Ron Miller - Jefferson Farber; Sara Turing - Deborah Hedwall; Dillwyn Fox - Philip Kerr; Pat Green - Annie Meisels; John Smith - John Leonard Thompson. About two hours with one intermission. July 17 - August 2, 2014, Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, Union Street, Pittsfield, MA barringtonstageco.org 413.236.8888.
Photo Credit: Kevin Sprague