'Breaking the Code' marks ACT return

The name Alan Turing may not be familiar unless you're a computer geek or a World War II buff, but Turing is one of those rare figures central to not just one but two historical dramas.

He was the English mathematical genius whose work in the 1940s cracked the German Enigma Code, a crucial step in the Allies' defeat of the Nazis. And his work led, more or less directly, to the development of the digital computer.

The title of Hugh Whitemore's play "Breaking the Code" works on multiple levels.

It refers to Turing's top-secret work at England's Bletchley Park during the war, to his homosexuality, which broke not only a code but English law, and to his talking about it, which one definitely did not do at the time.

The 1986 drama played in London's West End and on Broadway with Derek Jacobi and was later adapted for television in both England and the United States.

It is the first full production this year for the newly minted Ashland Contemporary Theatre (the company earlier this year presented "Local Produce," short plays by local playwrights, under its former name, Ashland Community Theatre).

Directed by Jeannine Grizzard on a minimalist set dominated by blackboards filled with obtuse equations, the play jumps around between Bletchley in the 1940s and Manchester and London in the 1950s.

Grizzard and company have built a raked thrust stage extension that much improves the playing space of the Bellview Grange in Ashland.

On a stage that's bare except for bits of furniture, we see Turing (Bob Brazeau) confound a Bletchley supervisor, alarm his mother, confess his homosexuality to a smitten colleague, pick up a bit of rough trade in a pub, describe his love life to a no-nonsense cop, and rhapsodize about the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell and Kurt Godel.

Whitemore's narrative strategy is to plunk Turing down in one tête-à-tête after another for 16 scenes. Don't look for interactions involving several characters at once. As a result the story and its staging have an episodic and rather static quality, with each supporting character popping up just long enough to inspire Turing to launch into a long speech. These more often than not seem to dwell on abstract subjects (analytical philosophy, the Fibonacci sequence, mathematician David Hilbert's "Entsheidungsproblem," but actually reveal more of Turing to us bit by bit.

The play depends on Turing, and Brazeau plays him with a spare charm. A guileless eccentric, he has a matter-of-fact outlook on his sex life. "I am a homosexual," he kindly tells Pat Green (Emma Wilkinson), a female colleague with a crush on him.

But if he can make sex sound boring, he makes mathematics sound sexy. He glows ecstatically as he says, "Godel's theorem is the most beautiful thing I know."

With his sandy hair cropped in the schoolboy style of the day and wearing a professorial jacket with elbow patches (he calls himself an "old poof"), Brazeau inhabits the oddball mind of the socially awkward genius, catching his naive honesty with an understated eloquence. Turing must have half the lines in the play, and the role requires him to adapt a stammer, as if Turing's speech cannot keep up with the flood of ideas issuing from his brain.

He's obsessed with the nature of the mind (could it exist apart from a body?) and the idea of a mathematics so pure that it transcends notions of right and wrong. The one thing we never see him do is to actually engage with the brain-crushing challenges of the Nazi code machine, although he talks about it briefly.

The supporting actors' British accents achieve different degrees of success and are not generally a distraction. Urban Kohler brings a deadpan earnestness to Mick Ross, the cop to whom Turing blithely "confesses" his sexual behavior.

David Mannix injects some gentle humor as Dillwyn Knox, Turing's space-case superior at Bletchley.

"Breaking the Code" may remind you a bit of such plays as "Copenhagen" and "Proof," but the similarities are mostly on the surface. In the end, Turing's importance to the world never translated into celebrity, in part because his work was so secret. The man who arguably won the war and invented computers was ruined for private behavior in his own home with a consenting adult, aided by his own naïveté.

That's depressing, but "Breaking the Code" has its own quirky charm. Carried by Brazeau's bravura performance, the two-and-a-half-hour play runs through July 3 at the Grange. ACT plans new productions in July, August and September.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.

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