By Karen Isaacs
Breaking the Code by Hugh Whitemore is a fascinating exploration of the life of Alan Turing. Don’t recognize the name? You might not be expected to unless you are into WWII history, cryptology or computer history.
Turing, a British mathematician and engineer, was credited as the person who broke the “Enigma” code which the Germans used for military communication. It was an incredibility difficult and complex code and certainly Turing did not work alone, but it is his ideas that led to breaking the code and contributing mightily to winning the war.
I had seen this play in London in 1986 with Derek Jacobi before it appeared on Broadway, so I was anxious to see it again at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass. where it is playing through Aug. 2.
In the interim there have been numerous articles and television shows about the code breaking effort in England during WWII — the role of the women code breakers as well as Turing and his colleagues.
So I realized as I was watching this fine production which features a stellar performances by Mark H. Dold that this play is less about the details of how “Enigma” was cracked and more about Turing — the man.
The play intersperses scenes of his early life at school, and his work in the top secret code-breaking location, but focuses mainly on his life after the war. Turing was brilliant but at times very socially inept; he truly did not understand the society in which he lived. He was a homosexual and did not realize that in the time he lived, it was best kept a secret.
So most of the story is about how — after reporting a minor burglary at his home — he acknowledges his sexuality to the police. This is the late 1940s and in England, it is a crime, considered “gross indecency.” The law has a will of its own and in reality Turing was sentenced to probation and later committed suicide.
But Breaking the Code is how he broke so many codes — he pushed beyond the boundaries of openness in society AND he pushed the boundaries of our consideration of machines. Could machines learn? Could they think? It was his work in the early development of computers that has led us to where we are.
Let’s look at this fine production. First of all kudos to the entire production team — the set by Brian Prather is flexible for the multiple locations; the costumes by Jennifer Caprio perfectly capture the period. Special praise to the outstanding lighting by Chris Lee and the music and sound by Lindsay Jones. Director Joe Calarco has orchestrated this piece in a way that allows us to totally enter Turing’s world.
Dold as Turing creates a man that you care about and at times want to mother. He uses a slight stutter that shows his insecurities in the world. But Dold also has massive job with pages of difficult dialogue and speeches. He is abetted by a true ensemble. Mike Donovan as Christopher — Turing’s first love who died young — does not have a large speaking role but his involvement in the action is huge. Also worth singling out are Deborah Hedwall as Turing’s mother, Annie Meisels as a co-worker who loves him and Philip Kerr as an older cryptologist.
If there is a criticism of this production it is not really about the production but about the play itself. It is long, running over two and a-half hours. And I do wish it had more about the actual breaking of the “Enigma” code.