CATCO and Evolution Shine Light on a Dark Piece of History in Engrossing Breaking the Code
CATCO and Evolution Theatre Company continue their streak of superlative co-productions with their engrossing, moving production of Hugh Whitemore’s Breaking the Code, directed by Joe Bishara.
Breaking the Code refracts and illuminates the life of computer science and cryptanalysis legend Alan Turing (Ian Short). This production, under Bishara’s assured hand, captures the elegance of the structure of Whitemore’s play. His approach to Turing’s life eschews the linear. The shifts in time never feel shuffled; they take on the discursive quality of the human mind following one thought into the next.
As befits a play about a scientist and professor who blazed the path toward artificial intelligence and modern computing, and found the key to breaking German codes and turning the tide of WWII, work features in Breaking the Code. The play understands that work is interpersonal and how much bureaucracy Turing faces. We come alive and reveal ourselves with other people.
The play covers three principal relationships of Turing’s. Dilwyn Knox (Dave Morgan), his recruiter, superior, and mentor, counsels and admonishes Turing for not hiding his homosexuality. Knox knows the hard limit of leeway given to an “eccentric” when society thinks they’re “useful.” Dilly also knows how that respect vanishes. Morgan’s bone-chilling delivery of the devastating soliloquy extolling compromise got a more than deserved spontaneous round of applause at the performance I saw, and I’m someone who usually hates applause between scenes in a play.
Two peers lay Turing bare. Schoolmate Christopher Marcom (Matthew Sierra) is everything smooth and well-versed in social graces Turing lacks. Sienna gives Marcom a humanity that drives home Turing’s grief at his death and underlines potential being snuffed out. Pat Green (Becca Kravitz) is the person who forces Turing to vocalize his homosexuality in the face of her love for him. Kravitz bursts with the keen intelligence that makes her suited for him — were it not for the obvious — and the sharp confidence to come right out and say it.
The joy of this ensemble comes in the actors’ reactions to one another. These actors make outsized impressions for the time they’re on stage. They also allow the nuances of Josie Merkel’s tour de force performance as Turing’s mother, Sara, to shine. These scenes with Sienna and Kravitz plant the seeds of Merkel‘s furious, heartbreaking defense of her son.
The plot engine burns with the fuel of Mick Ross (Ralph Scott), the investigator who catches Turing in the tragic honesty underneath Turing’s incompetent lie. Scott takes a character who could be a cartoon villain, a keystone cop or a shadowy cipher representing the evils of society, and plays him as a hardworking civil servant. Scott’s Ross is as disappointed and baffled at someone confessing to a crime, unbidden, as the crime itself, but he can’t let it slide. He’s still the instrument of the worst excesses of an uncaring society, but the humanity Scott brings makes that hit harder without letting the character off easy.
Ron Miller (Bill Darby), Turing’s rough-around-the-edges lover, provides the other side of the legal drama. Miller sets the burglary in motion that led to Turing’s arrest and sells him out without blinking. Darby’s Miller has charm for days, there’s not a second’s doubt what makes him appealing to Turing. His intensity communicates a canniness that doesn’t leave the slightest hesitation he knows what he’s getting and how to play it.
All great tragedies feature the unraveling and destruction of a person (or people) by their core values. This Breaking the Code nails that sense. Short delivers the line, “I have always been willing, even eager, to accept moral responsibility for what I do,” so matter-of-factly, it makes the other piece of his downfall, right after confessing his sexual relationship to Ross — “I always say things I shouldn’t” — click into place, tumblers in a horrible lock.
Short’s Turing accepts the barbaric chemical castration, and his ultimate suicide, with that same evenness but never a studied stoicism. He refuses to play the character as a wide-eyed innocent. His Turing is no nave too pure for the world; he moves over and through his stumbling blocks with confidence in what he has to offer. It’s one of this year’s unforgettable performances.
This production understands the closeness of 10 years and tomorrow, and — with both this marvelous cast and the beautiful projections and minimal abstract set (courtesy of scenic designer Edie Dinger-Wadkins and technical director Joe Wolfle, Jr) — Bishara understands the warmth, the human joy, and the human cost of a lifetime spent breaking the codes of war, society, and of one’s own heart.
Breaking the Code runs through November 11 with performances at 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit catco.org/shows/2018-2019/breaking-the-code.