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October 3, 2012

Impressive production of 'Breaking the Code' from Performance Workshop Theatre

On the tomb of Leonard Matlovich, a gay Vietnam veteran who fought unsuccessfully in the mid-1970s to remain in uniform while out of the closet, there is an inscription: “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

I thought of that line while attending Performance Workshop Theatre’s impressive production of “Breaking the Code,” Hugh Whitemore’s play about math genius Alan Turing.

When he worked for the British government at hush-hush Bletchley Park during World War II, Turing was hailed for saving thousands of men by deciphering the German’s Enigma machine, which gave the Allies crucial advantages.

But in 1952, Turing, who by then was a major pioneer in computer science at Manchester University, was arrested for a homosexual liaison. In lieu of jail, he was ordered to take estrogen injections. Death, from an apparent suicide, followed two years later. He was 41.

There is no end of irony in the story of a man breaking one code to approbation and another to condemnation. There’s an uncomfortable twinge of tragedy, too.

Whitemore gives us a decidedly sympathetic portrait of Turing as a naïve genius, perpetually awed by ...

the sheer beauty of mathematics (Godel's theorem gives him downright sensual pleasure), yet just as delighted, and haunted, by the animated movie “Snow White.”

Turing seems to have worked out for himself the problem of his sexual orientation, deciding that, for one thing, it wasn’t a problem. But, given the paranoid mood of the ’50s, when gays were so often linked with communists and other nefarious threats, his chances of getting the police to think the same way were slim at best.

“Breaking the Code” is a challenging play on many levels. It’s long, slow and talky. Folks expecting flash may find it a tough sit (a group sitting behind me chatted, giggled and tapped their feet rudely through all three hours, rather than slip out at intermission).

Extensive discourses on math and computers are beautifully written, but that doesn’t necessarily make for taut theater. Whitemore’s structural device — a large number of scenes that keep moving back and forth in time — also works against tension.

But all that is easy to overlook, given the fascinating character of the rumpled, tweedy Turing, with his stammer and nail-biting, and the extraordinary life he led.

The role of Turing was indelibly created in 1986 by Derek Jacobi, who performed it on the London and New York stages and went on to do a film version. It’s a tricky assignment, starting with the stammer (Jacobi had that down fabulously from having starred in “I, Claudius”), and the fact that Turing is onstage nearly all the time.

Marc Horwitz, co-producing artistic director of Performance Workshop Theatre, takes on the challenge with assurance and sensitivity. It’s a portrayal that rings true at every turn, right down to the tics, which Horwitz does in persuasive fashion, never drawing attention to them.

Dianne Hood gives a touching performance as Turing’s mother. Michael Donlan captures the charm and smarm of Ron Miller, the working class bloke who meets Turing at a pub and accepts an invitation to dinner.

There is fine-tuned work from Tony Colavito, as the detective who discovers more about Turing than he bargained for; and Rodney Bonds, as the knowing, sympathetic Bletchley Park official.

Katherine Lyons could use a little more spark as Pat Green, who falls for her fellow cryptographer. Christopher Kinslow shines subtly in the roles of two young men at opposite ends of Turing’s life.

Accents, coached by Horwitz, are remarkably convincing. The production, directed by Marlyn Robinson, flows fluently on Sean Urbantke’s soft-grained set. (Some sort of sonic distraction would be welcome to fill all the air between the many scene changes.)

Turing, born 100 years ago, proved invaluable to a war effort and to science, but he just “couldn’t play the game.” “Breaking the Code” reveals what a cruel, senseless penalty he paid.

Performances continue through Oct. 28.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:16 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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