Encore Michigan

Ada and the Engine explores first computer language in the age of Byron

Review September 08, 2018 Patrice Nolan

TRENTON, Mich. — Open Book Theatre Company has a fascination for the plays of Lauren Gunderson; Artistic Director Krista Schafer Ewbank won a Wilde Award for her performance in last season’s Emilie and also directed Bauer in 2016. This season, OBTC returns to the gold mine for the Michigan premiere of Ada and the Engine.

OBTC is in good company. Gunderson’s award-winning plays have graced the stages of many Michigan theaters in recent years. And according to American Theatre magazine, excepting Shakespeare, Gunderson is currently the most-produced playwright in the country. It’s easy to understand the popularity of these cleverly plotted plays, rich with witty dialog and prodded by a literary searchlight that brings neglected insights and injustices to light. It’s a formula that works, and Gunderson has used it effectively to promote amazing women whom history has ignored.

With Ada and the Engine, Open Book Theatre celebrates an unlikely but actual Victorian heroine — Ada Lovelace. As the play opens, we find 18-year-old Ada (Sarah Hawkins) reading aloud Lord Byron’s famous poem, “She walks in beauty like the night.” As Ada’s mother Augusta (Kez Settle) rushes into the room, Ada conceals the slender volume behind her back — but not quickly enough. Her mother discovers it and begins angrily ripping pages from the book. In short order we learn that Ada is the legitimate but abandoned daughter of the infamous, tempestuous Byron, whom Ada never knew. Because Ada’s mother is obsessed with the worry that Ada might inherit her father’s madness and flair for poetry (linked diseases, apparently) she has pushed Ada to master mathematics – a sure cure for romantic notions.

A theme of this play is the notion, commonly embraced at the time, that Byron’s “darkness” – his infidelities, indiscretions and moodiness – could taint the blood of the daughter who was eight when he died abroad. Even Babbage, her intellectual champion, assumes an inherited gift of poetry is evident in her thought and writing. Ada herself is wary of it and struggles to find the right balance in her life between her passions for music, science, poetry and imagination. In this production, the omnipresence of Byron’s shadow is made manifest by a dashing, caped actor (Matthew Wallace) who crisscrosses the stage, delivers correspondence, moves furniture, and watches the proceedings with a bemused sense of ennui.

To further secure Ada’s “safety” from her dangerous DNA, Augusta explains that Ada must quickly meet and marry a respectable gentleman of means and title; her mother is escorting Ada to a social event expressly for that purpose. Ada wants to be free to pursue math unencumbered by a husband. Her mother explains that for women, respectability is freedom. Lord William Lovelace (Joshua R Brown) is being pushed as an eligible suitor.

At the same time, Ada’s beloved mathematics tutor, Mary Somerville (Cynthia Szczesny), introduces Ada to the premier polymath of the day, Charles Babbage (Lindel Salow). Babbage is considered much too old for Ada, but something is kindled between them when Babbage begins telling Ada about his ideas for a differential computing engine. Brilliant enough herself to understand its potential, she is overcome with enthusiasm for the project and admiration for its inventor. They are soulmates of an esoteric kind, but when Babbage announces a higher vision – for a more advanced Analytical Machine – their mutual admiration become palpable. Even so, Ada soon becomes Lady Lovelace, and propriety limits her interaction with Babbage to a long-distance epistolary correspondence.

Ada has children, suffers lingering illnesses, but manages to keep up on the latest in mathematics through Babbage’s invigorating letters. She even creates a translation of a scientific paper Babbage writes while abroad. Charles Babbage had conceived a design for an Analytical Engine that could calculate complex math problems using information coded on punch cards. Ada makes the next leap — that any data could be processed by the engine if it were converted to the right language. Appending Babbage’s work with her own “notes” (which exceed the length of the translated material) Ada express her ideas for programming the machine to create calculations beyond mere mathematical data, even to the point of composing music. In her efforts to reconcile her disparate intellectual and imaginative gifts, Ada became the worlds’ first computer programmer. In her notes, she foresaw possibilities for the computer that were left unrealized for one hundred years.

The design for this Open Book production uses a floor-level thrust stage with the audience on risers. The scenic design by Eric Niece uses beautiful, oversized wooden cogs that dominate the back wall and spill across the painted stage floor. They represent the gears of Babbage’s Analytical Machine and, metaphorically, Ada’s own life. Lighting is by Harley Miah, period costumes are by Cheryl Zemke, and choreography is by Geri Conner. Danielle Gilbert is the Stage Manager.

Ada and the Engine, under the direction of Krista Schafer Ewbank, is an engrossing play with fully realized historical characters and a modern sense of urgency. The cast is terrific, and Sara Hawkins is unaffected as the brilliant young woman for whom the numbers dance. Lindel Salow manages the subtle demeanor of an older man who is besotted with Ada’s intellectual radiance and shimmering youth, while struggling with the impossibility of a romantic attachment.

It’s a matter of history that Ada Lovelace died at the age of 36 – the same age as her father and his father. The play could reasonably be expected to end with Ada’s final gasp. But there is a bit more to this play, a turn to mystical material that brings together the seeming dichotomies of poetry and science, music and integers. Father and daughter meet. We hear the thrum of a heartbeat echoed in Byron’s iambics, and piano music underscores the on/off rhythm of life dancing to binary code. In the end, Ada is granted a moment of prescience in which the fully realized implications of her discovery dance before her eyes.

This play is strong enough to stand on its own merits, but has special appeal to all who would champion young women in STEAM education subjects. The final scene is fantastical to be sure, but consistent with the scientific idea that things are impossible until they’re not. Einstein himself declared that “imagination is more important than knowledge.” The story of Ada Byron Lovelace, told with love by the Open Book Theatre Company, proves it.

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