Living by the Numbers

Alan Turing was a brilliant English mathematician who, in the darkest days of World War II, led a successful effort to crack the Nazis' secret code. His triumph let the Allies know what the Axis was up to, and was one of the keys in the victory over Germany. But unlike the discoveries of many wartime researchers, Turing's work had implications beyond the battlefield; it was his ideas that helped lead to the creation of the first digital computers. For all this, he won the Order of the British Empire, and as one of the characters in Breaking the Code, Hugh Whitemore's compelling play on Turing's life, says, "Winston thought the world of him."

He thought the world, anyway, of Turing's public accomplishments; his private life might have been another matter. Turing was homosexual, and while any number of accomplished Englishmen have shared his sexual preference without government prosecution, once the war ended and his mathematical insights were no longer crucial to England's survival, Turing was not so fortunate. His breaking of the military code was applauded; his breaking of Britain's moral code (and the English anti-sodomy laws) was not.

This background might seem to make Breaking the Code little more than another gay pride play. It isn't. Though Turing's sexuality resulted in his persecution, it was not the sum total of his life. And in his brilliant stage adaptation of Andrew Hodges' biography of Turing, Whitemore focuses as much, if not more, on Turing's passion for science and thought as he does on Turing's passion for more physical things. Theater LaB Houston and director Ron Jones have given Breaking the Code a capable and often moving production, but not one without problems.

The complicated burden of portraying Turing is ably borne by Jerry Miller, who, according to the program notes, is an astronaut trainer and flight controller at the Johnson Space Center. Miller looks perfect for the part. He has a lean, muscular body (Turing was a marathon runner), a thick head of blond-brown hair cut in period style and a warm, sympathetic, Sam Waterston kind of face. One can believe in this face and, what's more, believe that behind it lurks an intelligence capable of solving world-class problems.

Whitemore gives Turing several speeches in which to detail -- wittily and clearly -- the history and nature of the mathematical problems that consume the scientist's attention. In one scene in particular, Turing explains the nature of his work to the man who's about to hire him to crack the Nazi coding machine, which has been given the name Enigma. It's a speech in which this Cambridge researcher must explain, as though to a college sophomore (both his potential boss and the audience), a breakthrough in the understanding of the nature of mathematical systems. It's a long speech but a fascinating one. The names of mathematicians that are (probably) unknown to the audience are invoked, and through Turing's talk we can see the workings of a mind that takes us past the conclusions at which ordinary minds would prefer to rest.

This speech demands the utmost clarity of speech and rhythm; it must be spoken with the confidence not just of a man who knows the lines, but who has thought the thoughts. Miller tended to rush through it at a breakneck pace. He was full of enthusiasm and intensity, but the sound of a man thinking -- the lyricism of a man so in love with his thought that he ponders whether God is a mathematician -- was lost.

Perhaps this was the result of opening night jitters, but I don't think so. For Kenn Cullinane, as Turing's boss, rolls his eyes too frequently and too comically, as if to say, "This is beyond me, but I know a good man when I see one." Though Cullinane's character makes disclaimers about his mathematical background, this is still a man who's interested in mathematics, who needs those mathematics to aid the top secret government task force he's leading against a foe that's about to destroy his country.

So shouldn't he be more rapt than distracted? His distraction creates a distraction for the audience as well. Are we meant to follow his cue and give up trying to understand Turing's reasoning, or are we meant to absorb it? I think we're supposed to absorb it. For in other passages of the play, as when Turing explains the mathematical sequencing of the distribution of leaves in a fir cone, Miller much more successfully conveys Turing's knowledge and his attendant sense of wonder and beauty.

Another distraction is the accents. Nothing seems more difficult for American actors than British accents. And while dialogue coach Deborah Kinghorn has done an admirable job of getting the actors to go as far as they do, with the exceptions of Morgan Redmond and Scott Wierschem (whose character talks only in Greek), the actors speak a refined American with strongly ingrained features of British dialect.

Nevertheless, Breaking the Code frequently rises above these problems, in part because it's so wonderfully well-written and so fully informed by the texture of the life on which it was based. Why, for example, does Turing draw the police into his private life by reporting an unimportant burglary, one committed by a friend of a working class youth he's picked up in a pub? Quite possibly, the playwright seems to say, Turing doesn't fully know why he would open himself up to possible persecution just to take care of a small crime. The reason might well be allied to Turing's sense of right and wrong, the central terms for his explanation of how mathematical systems work. In mathematics, there is either a right answer or a wrong answer, and if we have a wrong answer that simply leads us more firmly toward the question of what the right answer is. This is the guide that led Turing to break the Nazi code, but this same guide never makes the code of Turing's own heart quite clear.

Turing believes that it's possible to create a machine that will think, no matter what religionists say about the need for a soul. But he has nightmares of being trapped in a mechanical brain. Ultimately, for Turing life doesn't provide a simple, right answer, but only becomes a more complicated problem. Why, for example, does the government prosecute him for admitting to a homosexual liaison after all he's done for it? Because, explains an intelligence officer, Turing is so important. Because he knows military secrets. Because the Americans are worried. Because he might be susceptible to blackmail.

And finally, because Turing can never crack the secret of the human heart, he's left to solve his problem as best he can, with a binary solution, a simple yes or no. An answer that's tied to an apple laced with cyanide.

Breaking the Code plays through December 17 at Theater LaB Houston, 1706 Alamo. 868-7516.

Sponsor Content