Review: "Ada's World"

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Ada's World: Stage West has a winner with the area premiere of Lauren Gunderson's Ada and the Engine

by Jan Farrington | published Wednesday, January 15, 2020 | Theater Jones

Fort Worth — Her face appears on STEM convention mugs and T-shirts, and her name, Ada, on an early computer language. Two centuries after her birth, she can still start an argument: does she get enough credit, or too much, for her insights and discoveries? In 2018 The New York Times published an obituary for Ada, in a series apologetically called “Overlooked.”

She is Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace (1815-1852), the fascinating central character of Stage West’s electric and mind-tickling regional premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s Ada and the Engine. A dream cast (Megan Haratine, Kelsey Milbourn, Steven Pounders, Garret Storms) brings life and sparkle to Gunderson’s smart, quick-witted dialogue. And director Emily Scott Banks, deftly juggling the interwoven strains of humor and regret, galvanizes the production with a level of physical movement that quite literally makes the play’s ideas dance…and sing.

Ada was notorious from birth for the father she never knew, the brilliant (and bed-hopping) poet George, Lord Byron. Raised by a bitter mother who trained her in mathematics (hoping to deflect the girl from the “insanity” of poetry), Ada made her own mix, combining astonishing talent in math, music, and languages into a “poetical science” that drew scientists and inventors into her orbit.

One of them was the charismatic Charles Babbage, whose calculating and analytical engines were a time-jumping early form of computer—and Ada was the first person to “program” an algorithm telling a machine what to do. They corresponded and worked together for years; Ada translated an important Babbage paper, adding to his work with even longer “notes” of her own. She saw a future in which these number-crunching machines could be used to produce graphics, create music, and more.

“Impossible things don’t stay impossible,” says Gunderson’s Ada (Milbourn). “Once you can imagine it then they start to exist.” She and Babbage (Pounders) imagined the machine as a kind of thinking “loom” (early computer programs were based on the punch cards used to weave complex fabric designs) — but a loom “as big as a ballroom.” They were right: think IBM in the 1950s. A modern working model of Babbage’s simplest machine, the Difference Engine, can be seen here in operation at a California museum.

There are echoes of Tom Stoppard’s 1993 Arcadia here, another play that flows around a math-and-science genius who happens (inconveniently) to be a young girl of the early 1800s. (Lord Byron comes into it too!) But Gunderson’s brave and thoughtful speculation on the whole of Ada’s life, from girlhood to death, takes her through the years Stoppard’s Thomasina never had to face. Here are the dilemmas and disappointments of living while female (and brilliant) — a major problem then, still recognizable today.

“Are you not happy?” Babbage asks her. “Oh no, I was. Or should be. Or am,” Ada replies. “Children and husband and…all the things one is supposed to accomplish by a certain age. Don’t listen to me babbling.”

But Gunderson doesn’t leave us in the doldrums: Ada and the Engine has plenty of laughs and love to go around as well. There’s Ada and Babbage, their kindred-soul connection revealing itself over a series of locked-eyes moments — some funny, some painful, and one a heart-stopping moment of pure, lost love. There’s Ada and husband William, Lord Lovelace (Storms), a straight-arrow sprig of the nobility who vows to be a devoted husband in this arranged marriage — and, to our slight surprise, proves to be a pretty good guy (within limits).

And there are Ada and her parents: her father an imagined, longed-for source of love, her mother Lady Byron (Haratine) an entirely real killjoy. Haratine’s scary mommie-dearest role is played with relish, and the actress doubles amusingly as math whiz and astronomer Mary Somerville, Ada’s tutor and Babbage’s opinionated friend.  

The play is packed with fast-paced and memorable conversations. It’s a delight to watch Milbourn come alive in her letters and brainstorming sessions with Pounders’ passionately dedicated Babbage. Dresses, dances, even marriage — it all seems a distraction to Ada, who would spend every minute as a “bride of science” if only she could. “I’m terribly good at maths and terribly bored with everything else,” she blurts out at their first encounter. Pounders meets her enthusiasm head on, as both of these brainiacs spark ideas off each other and go positively giddy at meeting someone who “gets it.”

Storms is poignant as Lovelace, who doesn’t know quite what he’s getting in his rare “bird” Ada — but tries very hard. He is ridiculously magnetic and engaging in a second role (and the apogee of Becca Janney’s fine array of period duds), but you’ll have to make a logical guess; we won’t let the lord out of the bag.

The action is spread wide over Michael Sullivan’s “Ada’s universe” set design: her family life here, her science world there, and a wide, classically columned space between, with room enough for thoughts, dances, and revelations both in this world and others. Filmy drapes span the space between the columns, providing a tabula rasa for Tristan Decker’s evocative projections and Adam Chamberlin’s lights — and David Lanza’s lovely and well-ordered music choices (and computer “notes”) give us a feel for Ada’s strong sense of the math she hears in music — and the music she finds in math.

There’s a long list of good reason why Gunderson’s women-centered plays (Exit, Pursued by a Bear; The Revolutionists; I and You; Silent Sky; Miss Bennet; The Taming; The Book of Will — would someone please do that one?) have been snatched up by theaters all across the country (in recent years Gunderson has been at or near the top of the most-produced playwrights at professional theaters). Ada is another lively, intelligent, and very welcome piece from this playwright’s fresh theatrical imagination.

CHARLES (Babbage): As the information passes through the machine towards its solution, entire sections...

ADA: ...of switches flipping and spinning down its back, like tumbling water but not water, information, decimals, symbols, flowing and gliding and dancing —

LOVELACE: Now it's dancing?

CHARLES: Information switching partners —

ADA: changing hands —

CHARLES: converging and iterating —

ADA: Pirouetting and processing until —

CHARLES: It stops.

LOVELACE: What happens when it stops?

CHARLES: Well, it's either finished its job or it's broken.

       Babbage and Ada laugh

Support local arts writing, read this review at TheaterJones