Ada and the Engine at the Artistic Home is a magical play about poetry and technology, tinged with tragedy. Ada Byron Lovelace was the daughter of the famous poet, a man whose work was brilliant and whose life was scandalous. She was a bold personality, a mathematical genius, and was considered to be the first computer programmer. In many ways, Ada was a woman of our time, stuck in her own time nearly 200 years ago. Lauren Gunderson’s play, beautifully directed by Monica Payne, is a imaginative story of 19th century industrial history staged with a 21st century attitude.
It’s 1835 and we meet Ada (a charismatic Brookelyn Hebert) at 18 as her mother, Lady Anabella Byron (Carolyn Kruse), is still bitter at Lord Byron’s betrayal and desertion (he left when Ada was an infant). She finds her daughter reading one of his poems and rips the book apart. “Your father poisoned every pond he passed. He left wreckage and desperation and depravity with his every step. And I defied him. I did. For you ….” Lady Byron, recognizing her daughter’s intelligence as a child, had her tutored in maths by Mary Sommerville (Laura Coleman), a respected scientist and mathematician. Was this an effort by a mother to defy a father’s legacy? Poetry vs. maths? Yet Ada sees similarities. She also plays piano and finds “music and mathematics share a language” and feels “a kind of delicious magic in music.”
Accompanying Sommerville to a salon, Ada meets the charming intellectual Charles Babbage (John Mossman), many years her senior, and a polymath, engineer and serial inventor. He demonstrates a miniature model of his Difference Engine, a rudimentary computing device that can compute mathematical tables in minutes. When built, he says, it will be “a machine of cogs and wheels the size of a carriage.” Ada is fascinated, especially with the possibility of “printing” the tables from the machine; they are now only duplicated by hand copying, with accompanying errors.
Ada is gowned and bejeweled (to her discomfort) for her first venture into society. Lady Byron wants her to make a proper marriage and already has someone in mind: Lord Lovelace (Rich Holton). The couple meets and there is a spark as they dance their first dance. (During this clever scene, Babbage and Ada read letters to each other.)
Ada and Lovelace marry and she has three children in quick succession; her health is weakened. But she maintains her relationship with Babbage, translating one of his lectures for publication and then working with him on his second machine, the Analytical Engine. This more advanced machine is based on the concept of punched cards used by looms to create woven patterns. Ada writes the “notes,” an algorithm for the machine’s operation.
Babbage is not known for his diplomacy; his biographer calls him an irascible genius. He’s constantly frustrated by the granting of some government funding but never enough to build his machines. The ultimate frustration is in 1851; his machine will not be part of the Great Exposition that will celebrate British and world industry in the magnificent new Crystal Palace in Hyde Park.
Ada, now 36 and in failing health, still maintains her work. She’s a visionary who sees the potential of the computing machine to hold “the past, the present and the future, all at once, all together in its beating metal heart.”
In the play’s final scene, set in “the future,” Ada meets her father, Lord Byron (John LaFlamboy.) They discuss poetry and machines. He asserts, “machines are not the future … machines cannot love” and she responds, “Numbers do not lie / or leave / or die.” Electronic music fills the scene.
Director Payne does a stunning job of staging Gunderson’s inventive history; it’s a love story about numbers and logic as well as about people. Both Hebert and Mossman are flawless in creating their characters. Eleanor Kahn’s scenic and props design and Cat Wilson’s lighting create a hyper-modern setting of lighted beams, suggesting structures, in the Artistic Home’s black box theater. Sound design is by Petter Wahlback. Zachary Wagner’s traditional costuming for both women and men balances the 21st/19th century perspective. His striking gown for Ada is structured in sections, removed piece by piece as her life and career progress.
Ada and the Engine continues at the Artistic Home, 1376 W. Grand Ave., through August 4. Running time is two hours with one intermission. Buy tickets for $34 for performances Thursday-Sunday. (No performance on July 4.)