Casualty of War
Exploring the life of forgotten British hero Alan Turing
Published: October 10, 2012
Breaking the Code
At Performance Workshop Theatre through Oct. 28
Unless you’re a computer geek, you may not have heard of Alan Turing. Yet he is the mind behind an invention that has profoundly changed the world. In the 1930s, Turing, a British mathematician, conceived of “the universal machine,” a sort of meta-machine that theoretically could perform “any systematic process man could devise.” And so the concept of the modern computer was born. Turing was a code breaker during World War II, eventually deciphering the code of the famously cryptic Enigma machine, through which the Germans communicated. The Allies were thus able to know exactly what the enemy was planning before they executed it, greatly assisting them in ending the war. He went on to conduct seminal research in computing, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology, and was a world-class marathon runner to boot. How did such a man fade into obscurity?
A moving production now at the Performance Workshop Theatre provides at least part of the answer. Turing was openly gay in an era when homosexuality was not only frowned upon in England but illegal. Despite his mathematical and scientific discoveries and his influence on the course of the war—Winston Churchill believed that Turing made the single biggest contribution to Allied victory—Turing lost his security clearance after the war and was put under surveillance. He was eventually convicted of “gross indecency” and chose to undergo estrogen hormone injections—designed to reduce his sex drive—rather than go to prison. (He began to grow breasts as a result.)
None of this constitutes a spoiler for Breaking the Code, as the play is bound together as much by metaphysical and moral inquiry as it is by plot. It flashes back and forth in time, touching on Turing’s lofty interests in cryptography, mathematics, and the human condition as well as on the sordid humiliations he endured as a result of his sexual preferences. The incomparable Marc Horwitz gives a nuanced performance as Turing, bringing passion to speeches on topics ranging from the Fibonacci sequence to free will and the possibilities of an electronic brain. It can’t be easy to make a play about math riveting, but Performance Workshop has succeeded in doing so.
As depicted in the play, Turing was a socially awkward eccentric, driven by his love of truth and impatient with social convention. (He concocted his own weed killer and was known to chain his mug to the radiator at the code-breaking center so no one would walk off with it.) He also had a stutter, a trait a less talented actor would do best to avoid. But Horwitz makes brilliant use of the stutter as an emotional barometer: It is subtle, barely noticeable, when Turing is comfortable. But when he is anxious—as when he tells his mother that he is gay and likely to go to prison for it—it becomes a real, painful hindrance to his speech.
The various British accents in the production are equally convincing, and go a long way toward transporting the audience to another time and place. Turing’s working-class lover, Ron Miller (Michael Donlan), sports a thick brogue so convincing that one does a double take when Donlan reappears as the crisp, upper crust-y British Intelligence officer John Smith.
The production also includes several of the leading lights of Baltimore’s theater scene, including Rodney Bonds, who has taken part in over 100 local productions in the last four decades, and Tony Colavito, who recently starred in the Fells Point Corner Theatre’s stellar production of The Iceman Cometh. (Colavito also served as master carpenter on Breaking the Code’s spare, elegant set.) Bonds does a good turn as the kindly, forgetful Dillwyn Knox, Turing’s boss at the code-breaking center, but in a recent matinee performance, he stumbled over several lines, as did Dianne Hood as Turing’s mother Sara. These fumbles would have been less noticeable if Horwitz did not have to contend with such complex dialogue, which he delivered with nary a misplaced stutter.
Colavito, as the fast-talking, rule-bound policeman Mick Ross, is the perfect counterpoint to the unkempt, impassioned Turing. The scenes they share illuminate Turing’s uncompromising nature, a trait that made him a brilliant scientist but a man less adept in the messy, inconsistent real world. As he tells Knox, “I have always been willing—indeed, eager—to accept moral responsibility for what I do.” Though avenues of escape are presented to him, Turing chooses to give a statement to the police—in essence, a confession—regarding a sexual tryst with Ron Miller, a decision that leads to his downfall.
On the centenary of Turing’s birth, Performance Workshop’s production is a thought-provoking meditation on the fate of a man who saved his country only to be condemned by it. Turing tells his friend Pat Green (Katherine Lyons), “When I was a child, numbers were my friends. They were so wonderfully reliable. They never broke their own rules.” Human beings, he was to find, were not nearly so logical.
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