by Hugh Hunter
Alan Turing created the prototype for the computer during World War II and used it to break Germany’s “Enigma” code, saving countless lives, but years later he was prosecuted for homosexuality. The engrossing “Breaking the Code” (1986) by Hugh Whitemore, now running at Allens Lane Theater in Mt. Airy, takes a close look at this ill-starred genius.
The Oscar nominated movie “The Imitation Game” (2014) takes place at England’s top-secret Bletchley Park decryption facility. While Turing’s eccentricities are on full display, the dramatic tensions surrounding the war are front and center. But “Breaking the Code” focuses squarely on the tragic mystery of Turing himself.
“Breaking” is a non-linear play, and we see Turing at different times in his life. Director Robert Bauer only needs a few simple stage props and dramatic lighting (Mike Lucek) to shift scenes. Sometimes characters not directly involved in a scene stand by, frozen in ghostly poses as though they were passing judgment.
Turing is nearly always on stage. Tall, thin and indifferently dressed, Dante Zappala’s superb portrayal carries the show. Turing has a telltale stutter and nervous ticks, but Zappala never overplays these mannerisms. Everything about the way Turing talks and moves tells you he is chronically ill at ease.
Despite war-time heroics, this celebrated mathematician was later prosecuted for homosexuality under “Gross Indecency” laws. (England decriminalized homosexuality in 1967.) Court-ordered estrogen injections ushered in his suicide. But “Breaking” also shows us a man who was curiously complicit in his own victimization.
The ironic showdown between Turing and police inspector Ross (Thomas H. Keels) is the telling scene. The dogged officer suspects Turing is withholding information about his home burglary complaint. Under pressure Turing blurts out “I am homosexual.” What angers Ross is that he is now forced to prosecute Turing under existing law. Ross cries out, “Why did you tell me?”
Actually, everyone in “Breaking” seems to care about Turing. His Bletchley mentor Dillwyn Knox (Mort Paterson) is kindly. His mother Sara (Carole Mancini) and fellow cryptographer Pat (McKenzie Jones Clifford) love him. Even Cold War security officer John Smith (Lawrence H. Geller) is respectful.
Turing’s lover, Ron, (Kevin Fennell) is the one exception. The supreme irony is that Turing only gets into trouble because he lies to protect Ron. But this pub bum only sees Turing as an easy mark. You start to ask yourself, “How can someone as brilliant as Turing also be so dreadfully stupid?”
I will take a pass on speculation that Turing had Asperger’s Syndrome (a form of autism). His spectacular life reflects mostly on the mores and tensions of his day. You could see Turing as a metaphor for the larger paradox that what we are good at doing may also be driven in part by our incapacities.
Note: Turing was pardoned by Queen Elizabeth in 2013. Royal pardons are rare.
Allens Lane Theater is located at Allens Lane near McCallum Street. “Breaking the Code” will run through May 16. Reservations available at 215-248-0546.