Two plays that examine the consequences of differing attitudes toward homosexuality in wartime - one set aboard a World War II troop ship and the other about a genius code breaker from the same era - are daring to rock the boat at Olney Theatre Center.
Neal Bell's Somewhere in the Pacific and Snoo Wilson's Lovesong of the Electric Bear are part of the annual politically edgy Potomac Theatre Festival. And while neither script is an unqualified success, both are receiving stirringly intense productions that leave you thinking long after the actors have taken their final bows.
A world premiere, Lovesong is the more inventive work. It's also the second play about the late mathematical genius Alan Turing by a leading British playwright (Hugh Whitemore's Breaking the Code, starring Derek Jacobi, was televised on Masterpiece Theatre in 1997).
Unlike Whitemore's fairly straightforward approach, Wilson relates Turing's biography from the viewpoint of his teddy bear, affectionately (but not cloyingly) played by Tara Giordano in plush, worn overalls, with two perky plush ears on top of her head. A child's toy may seem an odd choice to co-star in a play about the man who pioneered the invention of the computer and cracked Nazi Germany's Enigma code.
But Turing was also a man who harbored such a deep fondness for a children's movie - Disney's 1937 animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - that it seems to have inspired his means of suicide (eating a poisoned apple). Revealing this won't spoil Wilson's play for those unfamiliar with Turing. To the contrary, the play begins with the protagonist's death.
The rest of the drama focuses on what led Turing to eat the apple, one of many actions his protective bear tries to prevent. Lovesong concerns itself more with Turing's work on the computer than his code breaking, but ultimately it zeroes in on the cost of his personal departures from mainstream society - from his schoolboy eccentricities, which got him pummeled by his classmates, to his sexual orientation, which led to prosecution for a crime the British called "gross indecency."
Under Cheryl Faraone's direction, Aubrey Deeker's Turing is far less mannered than Jacobi's (the stuttering is kept to a minimum, for example). But Deeker still plays him as a man who sees the world differently. While this idiosyncratic vision may be the source of his genius, Deeker's Turing also craves the warmth and understanding that his parents denied him, or so Wilson's sketchy depiction of Turing's childhood home life suggests.
For a play about genius to shine, it needs flashes of brilliance. Lovesong includes stabs at unconventionality (the bear being the best example), but it's primarily a biographical account, so specific to Turing that it loses sight of the broader context of his tragic story.
Somewhere in the Pacific is more insular yet. Granted, insularity has its place in this claustrophobic troop-ship setting, where male companionship occasionally strays into something more. And, director Jim Petosa's staging brings a few inspired touches to Bell's unrelievedly bleak text.
A tryst between a sailor (Bill Army) and a Marine (John Stokvis) is depicted by having them link hands and feet while swinging on ropes. And a scene on a raft is disturbingly grim, even though designer Alexander Cooper's raft is simply a raised platform skirted with fabric.
The portrayals of the men - young, frightened, brave and lonely - by a cast consisting partly of students from Middlebury College in Vermont, are achingly believable, with the only off-note sounded by seasoned actor Paul Morella, whose depiction of the captain rarely approaches the core of this increasingly unhinged leader.
Part of the captain's instability centers on his fixation with a grisly letter written by his son, who was killed in action. When the captain has Marine after Marine read the letter aloud, his second in command worries about its impact on the men. Its impact on the audience is also distressing, as is much of what transpires in this short, grueling drama - a headlong plunge into roiling waters by a playwright who relentlessly reiterates the message that war makes strange bedfellows.
What: Lovesong of the Electric Bear and Somewhere in the Pacific (in repertory with a bill of short plays by Edward Albee and Harold Pinter)
When: Through Aug. 7
Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney
Call: 301-924-3400 for showtimes