Review: The warmth of Alan Turing is strong in Theatre Rhinoceros’ ‘Breaking the Code’

John Fisher directs and stars in

John Fisher directs and stars in “Breaking the Code” at Theatre Rhinoceros in San Francisco through Aug. 29th. (Photo by David Wilson)

One of the most painful and poignant moments in the Theatre Rhinoceros return engagement production of “Breaking the Code” had nothing to do with the other numerous painful and poignant moments in the play.

It takes place toward the end and happens when scientific genius Alan Turing speaks to Pat, his good friend and a woman whom he shares his love with. If Turing weren’t gay, this would be more than a mutual admiration society.

Turing’s life had become filled with pain, driven by the homophobic world that surrounded him. He was arrested at 39-years-old for taking part in a relationship with a man 20 years his junior, a secret that might not have ever come out if he hadn’t called in a burglary. In a terribly cruel plea bargain, Turing agreed to hormonal treatment to reduce his libido, a treatment that had a side effect of growing breasts.

While he explained to Pat about all this, she had the wherewithal to take him to a simpler place. She offers him ice cream, to which he replied in the affirmative. And then she asked if he would like it in a cup or a cone.

Turing smiled, and said quietly, “A cone.”

This hit me pretty damn hard. It is a perfect moment, one that is assisted greatly by a true friend, a woman who read the scenery with such honesty. Ahh, if life could only be as simple as it once was, when Turing’s intellect, and not his sexual orientation, was the most important thing about his life. Ice cream, for one brief moment, would make it all better.

This is one of many moments that work so well in the Rhino’s production, playing through Aug. 29th. Artistic director John Fisher, who also stars as Turing and directs the piece, wonderfully handles the production, which plays nicely in the quaint Eureka Theatre in San Francisco. Turing is a hugely important historical figure, albeit a little known one, a man whose legacy includes breaking Nazi codes leading to major victories for the Allies in World War II. A panel of that legacy reminiscent of a Hollywood walk of fame star rests proudly in the sidewalk on Castro Street.

Turing does not cut a figure of one who is connected to confidence and intellect, yet he is both of those. He bounces around the room skittishly, with a gentleness that is embraced by everyone around him.

And yes, that even includes the arresting police sergeant (a straight-laced Patrick Ross), who doesn’t seem like he takes a particular glee in Turing’s arrest. Rather, the sergeant sticks to his argument that this arrest is about the law, that’s it. No grey area there, sorry.

While the play is full of outstanding, honest and heartfelt performances, Hugh Whitemore’s script sometimes gets a bit too heady for the average person. Plenty of conversations are long and drawn out, outstaying their usefulness. Certain moments were devoid of high stakes and climaxes.

Still, the holes in the script did not always take away from the compelling nature of the drama. Fisher’s Turing is all warmth, a man with a gentle soul and a giant intellect. He is fueled by pathos, a man whom your heart breaks for.

Take the moment where Turing confronts attractive fling Ron (Frank Wang) about some missing money. While it may not have been the most authoritative confrontation, Ron’s response forced him into a 360-degree turn with a quickness.

Just take note of the pain in Turing’s eyes. The quickness of his apology. The rapidity in which he offers money for a breakfast of coffee and bacon. This is a wonderful, seesaw moment that captures all that hurts about the life of Turing. He is a man that you want to protect. That protection came from his overbearing yet loving mother Sara (Celia Maurice) and Pat (A sweet Gloria McDonald). Yet the most painful thing of all is that Turing could not protect himself from himself.

While the denouement of the play certainly leaves something to be desired, it does not take away from the fact that Turing’s real life tragedy is considerable. He was a man whose pain is heartfelt, and a soul that comes across as gentle and rich.

And if I were to have to put this another way, Turing was the kind of guy I would have enjoyed having an ice cream cone with.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Theatre Rhinoceros presents “Breaking the Code”
Written by Hugh Whitemore
Directed by John Fisher
The word: Flaws in the script does not harm this wonderful portrayal of Alan Turing and the circumstances of his life and death.
Stars: 4 out of 5
Through August 29th
Running Time: Two hours, 10 minutes with a 10-minute intermission
The Eureka Theatre
215 Jackson Street, San Francisco, CA 94111
Tickets range from $10 to $30
For tickets, call (800) 838-3006 or visit www.therhino.org

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