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Powerful: Breaking the Code at Theatre Southwest

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The setup:

Brilliant English mathematician Alan Turing was indispensable in the defeat of Hitler. He and his top-secret team broke the German Enigma code, deciphering Nazi dispatches and foiling war plans. He was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire and elected fellow of the Royal Society, for this work and for his subsequent inventions that led directly to our modern computers.

For all his expansive intellect, though, he couldn't handle everyday life. Without thinking, he reported a burglary at his home and offhandedly confessed to the police that he was having an affair with a man. Like Oscar Wilde, 50 years earlier, he was arrested for "gross indecency," but unlike Wilde, he was granted probation if he agreed to chemical castration. Turing agreed, and tragedy followed.

Playwright Hugh Whitemore (All Creatures Great and Small, 84 Charing Cross Road) adapted Andrew Hodges's biography of Turing into a quietly powerful series of impressions that show the man -- at work, in love, at odds with his mother -- yet never overtly explain him.

The execution:

With its short scenes, the play sneaks up and explodes in tiny bursts, leaving you terribly affected when it's all over. Overseen by Theatre Southwest director Mimi Holloway, Whitemore is helped along enormously by three superlative performances.

Kevin Daugherty, artistic director of Island ETC in Galveston, is revelatory as Turing, turning his stammer and his childlike inquisitiveness into a magnificent suit of armor. Elizabeth Marshall, as Turing's confrere who's deeply in love with him, breaks your heart with truthfulness and felicity of character. And Zona Jane Meyer plays Turing's mother with noble resolve after a fleeting outburst of maternal pain when Alan confesses.

These three anchor the play and make it piercingly alive, ably abetted by the others in the ensemble: Kurt Bauer, Taylor Biltoft, David Bradley, Brandon Hobratschk, David Holloway and Scott Holmes.

The verdict:

Two years ago, an internet petition to grant Alan Turing knighthood prodded then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown to apologize for what happened to Turing: "On behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better." Whitemore's powerful tribute salves the hurt a little, too.

The play runs through April 30 at Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest. For information, call 713-661-9505.

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