PITTSFIELD — Last December, Queen Elizabeth II finally got around to formally pardoning British computer pioneer and World War II codebreaker Alan Turing for his 1952 conviction for homosexuality.
The posthumous pardon was unconscionably tardy, considering the scope of the injustices to which Turing was subjected despite making vital contributions to Britain’s wartime efforts. Following his conviction on a charge of “gross indecency,’’ Turing was sentenced to chemical castration by injections of estrogen in lieu of prison. At age 41, he committed suicide in 1954 apparently by eating an apple laced with cyanide.
A solitary apple rests ominously upon a table at center stage as Hugh Whitemore’s “Breaking the Code’’ gets underway at Barrington Stage Company under the direction of Joe Calarco. Though Whitemore’s 1986 drama is talky, overlong, and a trifle unfocused, this is nonetheless a quite compelling production, highlighted by Mark H. Dold’s virtuosic performance as the stuttering and awkward but passionately principled Turing.
Dold played C.S. Lewis in “Freud’s Last Session,’’ Mark St. Germain’s long-running off-Broadway hit, which originated at Barrington Stage. Dold’s Turing is no mere cardboard saint or martyr; he’s querulous and quirky, with his forelock flopping above features that are fixed in a perpetual wince. Dold constantly kneads his hands, gnaws at his fingernails, scratches his head, and paces the stage, as if the forces of self-concealment and self-expression are at war within Turing. It’s telling that the brilliant mathematician’s most flowingly uninhibited speech, in which he proudly describes in detail how he cracked the Nazis’ seemingly impenetrable “Enigma’’ code, arrives late in the play and is delivered to a Greek youth who doesn’t understand a word of English.
Calarco’s artful staging and Chris Lee’s shadowy lighting design create an atmosphere of foreboding. When other cast members are not in a scene, the director has them seated on either side of the slightly raised platform stage, gazing steadily at Dold’s Turing. Are they judging him, a kind of star chamber, or are they simply bearing grim witness to the unfolding tragedy of his life? Either way, it’s eerily effective. On Brian Prather’s set, large screens containing illuminated equations hang above and flank the stage, underscoring Turing’s love of and obsession with numbers.
As we watch “Breaking the Code,’’ it’s not just the queen’s belated pardon that creates resonant ripples; so, too, does the passage of time.
In the nearly three decades since Whitemore’s play premiered in London with Derek Jacobi as Turing (a role Jacobi also played on Broadway), our lives have gone thoroughly digital. So it prompts rueful smiles in the audience when Dold’s Turing says that he and other university researchers are “trying to make a machine that can learn things and eventually think for itself. . . . It’s what we call a digital computer,’’ and when he later tells students that: “A computer is a universal machine.’’ Tell us about it. . .
Of course, an even more pronounced case of now-vs.-then arises in the play’s depiction of the world of shadows gay people were forced to live in during the ’40s and ’50s.
Yet one of the things that Dold captures so well is the way Turing, when push came to shove, refused to play by the rules of his time and stood up for himself, choosing not just to think outside the box but to live outside it, too. It is Turing who eventually, during the course of a separate investigation, tells a detective sergeant (played by Kyle Fabel) about his sexual encounter with a young roughneck named Ron Miller (an excellent Jefferson Farber). When fellow codebreaker Pat Green (Annie Meisels) tells Turing she has fallen in love with him, he immediately informs her that he is gay. (She’s already figured that out.) He is equally open with Dillywn Knox (Philip Kerr), the leader of the codebreaking team, of which Turing is the most brilliant member.
Tender flashbacks to his first, lost love, a school friend sensitively portrayed by Mike Donovan, provide a framework for understanding what drove Turing on his restless quest to discover whether mental processes could occur in a machine, not just a human brain: immortality of a kind. Poignantly, those scenes also suggest that what Turing spent the rest of his life searching for couldn’t be found in any lab.