'Breaking the Code' dramatizes troubled life of a brilliant mind

Rhode Island College Theatre will present Hugh Whitemore’s “Breaking the Code” from Feb. 15-19 in the Nazarian Center’s Helen Forman Theatre. Performances are at 8 p.m., Feb. 15-18, and at 2 p.m., Feb. 18 and 19.

Centenary celebrations are rarely occasions for reevaluation; they are more often a measure of existing reputations. The case of British mathematician Alan Turing, however, could prove to be an exception.

Turing was born on June 23, 1912, and although his name may not be a household word, his accomplishments are far reaching. During World War II he was a behind the scenes hero, playing an instrumental role in cracking the Germans’ Enigma Code, which was used to coordinate air and U-boat attacks. Obsessed with the idea of a thinking machine, he also laid the theoretical foundations for and helped develop the first digital computers.

Turing, however, also had a formula for disaster. He was a gay man in England at a time when it was illegal to engage in homosexual activity, and in the early 1950s, he was convicted of “gross indecency,” which resulted in his being subjected to punitive hormone treatments to repress his sex drive and ultimately caused him to commit suicide by eating a poisoned apple.

Hugh Whitemore’s 1986 play “Breaking the Code,” which concentrates on the last two years of Turing’s life, with flashbacks to his school days and war years, provides a very engaging introduction to the man and his work. Whitemore is highly skilled at portraying biographical material. As screenwriter, he won two Emmy Awards: one for “Concealed Enemies,” about Alger Hiss, and one for “The Gathering Storm,” about Winston and Clementine Churchill.

The RIC Theatre production will be directed by Michael Ducharme, who heads the college’s Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts.

Ducharme graduated from Rhode Island College in 1980 with a major in theatre, and since then has mainly made his living in the theatre, primarily in the administrative end, but he hardly ever lets an opportunity to direct pass him by.

He has served as general manager at Trinity Rep and the Dallas Theatre Center, working alongside widely respected director Adrian Hall.

Ducharme held the same position at the Berkeley Rep in California and was artistic director for the Ukiah (haiku spelled backwards) Players, where he directed 15 plays and produced 30 others in the span of five years.

Just before returning to RIC in 2004, he was managing director for Providence’s Perishable Theatre.

Ducharme first saw “Breaking the Code” in 1989 or 90 at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco. Although he knew nothing about Turing at that point, he felt he had discovered a fascinating person and put the play on the short list of works he would like to direct. Ducharme, however, never found the right circumstances and put it out of his mind for a while, until a chance encounter brought it all back.

Michael Ducharme
He recalled, “In September of 2009 I was reading the New York Times. I found a copy of a public statement that had been posted by Gordon Brown, then prime minister of Great Britain, on the 10 Downing St. website, issuing a formal apology to Alan Turing’s family for the way that the country treated him following the Second World War.

“This, the article told me, was following a fair amount of pressure that had been put on the British government by the international computer science community because it is well known in that community that Alan Turing really created the first modern digital computer.”

When Jamie Taylor, managing director of RIC Theatre, asked Ducharme to direct a play, “Breaking the Code” was first on the list.

While Turing’s life was intertwined with science – and it is a strong presence in “Breaking the Code” – Ducharme’s initial impressions focused elsewhere, on a man “who is struggling with his identity in a time and a place where he is not accepted.”

Turing could have had a semblance of a conventional life. Pat Green, a woman colleague of his at Bletchley Park, where Turing’s team cracked the Enigma Code, found him charming, fell in love with him, and was willing to marry him, but Turing could not abide the contradiction of two divergent lifestyles.

Coincidentally or not, the process of rooting out contradictions and inconsistencies is exactly what the thinking machines or computers that obsessed Turing were so good at. It was their speed in this process that broke the Enigma Code, and later, ushered in a new generation of scientific and technological advances. In a way, Turing the man had something of the machines he created inside himself.

Through a tragic irony, which probably wasn’t lost on Whitemore, Turing’s downfall began with his own inconsistencies in describing a break-in at his home to police. The investigating officers became suspicious, and during a follow-up interview, Turing let slip that he was having an affair with a young man, never imagining the horrific consequences.

In staging the play, Ducharme doesn’t plan to use a realistic approach, for that wouldn’t be in keeping with the spirit of the work.

He said, “The play is not anchored in fact; it is inspired by the facts. It’s more of an impression or memory play. There are certain triggers in a scene that will remind Turing of something and send him back in time.

“So it’ll be a very presentational style, meaning the actors will, more often that not, face the audience as opposed to interacting in a realistic setting where you and I might be sitting and having eye contact.”

Correspondingly, the sets will not have “walls and doors and windows and bells and whistles,” in the director’s words, but will consist mainly of platforms at different levels, with a large projection screen at the back. The screen will be used to give the feeling of the different settings called for in the script, such as “winter afternoon” and “summer evening.”

Ducharme plans to have post-performance discussions concerning the issues around Turing’s story. Last fall Ducharme participated in a similar forum at Brown University in connection with its run of “Gross Indecency: the Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.” Wilde a half century earlier was brought down by the same statute used to convict Alan Turing. Kym Moore, director of the Wilde play, will likely participate in the discussions at RIC.

"Breaking the Code" cast

MICK ROSS – Justin Paige
ALAN TURING – Nathanael Lee
CHRISTOPHER MORCOM – Brennan Srisirikul
SARA TURING – Dana Haley
JOHN SMITH – Tobias Wilson
DILLWYN KNOX – Joshua Scott
PAT GREEN – Colleen Farrell
NIKOS – Devin Mooney
Ducharme predicted that 2012 could be the year in which Turing gains the wide recognition he deserves. He pointed out that a major motion picture is being scheduled for release toward the end of the year, with Leonardo DiCaprio playing the lead role. The film, however, will not be based on “Breaking the Code” but on “Alan Turing: The Enigma,” the Andrew Hodges biography that inspired Whitemore’s play.

Ducharme has done extensive research on Turing and has found some interesting facts and speculations, one of which is mentioned in an article about Turing he wrote for “Options” newsmagazine, that the Apple Computer logo – an apple with a bite taken out of it – might be a reference to Alan Turing’s suicide.

It should be mentioned that the British government is honoring Turing in 2012 with a postage stamp in their Britons of Distinction series.

While those may be interesting gestures, Alan Turing deserves more, something like the Order of the British Empire (OBE) he received in 1946 for his service during World War II. Hopefully Michael Ducharme is right. This will be the year it happens.

General admission is $15. Tickets can be purchased in advance via Visa or MasterCard by calling (401) 456-8144 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, or online at www.ric.edu/pfa.

Beginning Feb. 16, the STEM Center at RIC is providing three days of events closely connected to the play. To learn more, click here.