Ada and the Engine
Ada and the Engine, courtesy of Avant Bard Theatre

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The afternoon of Friday, March 13, 2020: A handful of cultural institutions had already announced they were temporarily going dark in order to “flatten the curve” of the COVID-19 pandemic. Four shows I was scheduled to review had already been canceled “until further notice” and I was in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, planning to leave by 5 p.m. for Arlington’s Gunston Arts Center to review Avant Bard Theatre’s staging of Lauren Gunderson‘s Ada and the Engine. At 4:35 my phone vibrated: the show and the remainder of Avant Bard’s season had been canceled.

Two years have passed. Avant Bard’s artistic director Tom Prewitt died in November 2020 and there was a brief period of uncertainty over whether the company would continue. Luckily it has, under a new leadership model of producing partners (including Sara Barker, Alyssa Sanders, and DeMone Seraphin) and they’ve revived a couple productions, including Ada and the Engine with its cast and production team.

Ada Byron, the future Countess of Lovelace (Dina Soltan), pores over volume by her late father, the romantic poet Lord Byron (Jon Reynolds) who abandoned her and her mother Lady Byron (Jessica Lefkow) soon after her birth in 1815. In an era in which moral scandal was believed to be inheritable, Lady Byron has spent the subsequent years keeping her daughter from the temptation of poetry, educating her only in mathematics and music, attempting to rehabilitate their reputation so that Ada might marry someone respectable: the Earl of Lovelace (also Reynolds).

This much goes according to plan, but if this were all, Ada Lovelace would be barely a chapter in biographies of her father. Instead, at 18 years of age, she befriended the brilliant mathematician and inventor, Charles Babbage (Matthew Pauli) at a presentation of his Difference Engine. By design the machine was capable of calculating polynomials, storing past calculations in the alignment of its wheels, and, if it had been built, printing out tables that would’ve benefitted  British navigation and industry. However, Babbage refocused his attention to his “Analytic Engine,” a machine that could be programmed by punchcard to run any algorithm––in short, a computer.

Babbage was prone to feuding with politicians who did not see the value in his work (he never delivered anything beyond partial prototypes).  Ultimately his funding was cut-off. Lovelace, however, was more than a friend who was brilliant enough to understand him. When she translated a transcript of Babbage’s 1840 Turin lecture on the Engine, she published it with her own copious annotations, including an algorithm (regarded as the first published computer program), and a statement on the potential of Babbage’s invention. It established Lovelace as one of computer science’s founding figures over a century before the transistor was invented. (Without Lovelace’s insight, my aforementioned smartphone, and even the methods my editors and I use to publish this review, would be unimaginable.)

Director Megan Behm balances the exploration of ideas with the emotional intimacy of the small playing space. Designer Alison Johnson dresses the characters with distinctive color palettes that persist through their costume changes, and Neil McFadden‘s score strikes a similar balance between computer generated and humanistic.

Soltan ably portrays Ada’s growth over 18 years—from the young woman, almost as giddy at being courted as she being at recognized for her intellect, to an adult who’s increasingly demanding to be seen as an equal partner by her mentor, and eventually her painful death at 36 due to uterine cancer. Pauli plays Charles with the highs and lows of genius, the exhilaration of his ideas being understood and the frustration of how rare understanding is. Lefkow and Reynolds play fine supporting roles. (Reynolds shows off his physical theater skills in his one scene as Lord Byron, playing the affected dissolute grace with which the poet would conceal his limp.)

While fictionalized portrayals of both Lovelace and Babbage are a mainstay of the steampunk genre, Gunderson’s script is grounded in the historical record. Her artistry is in how well she melds the emotional lives of her characters with their ideas in often exquisite language: in one scene Ada and Charles manage to describe the functions of the Engine while simultaneously evoking the image of the giant steam-powered brass and steel brain. Gunderson saves her most imaginative leap for the final scene in which all information is recoverable and poetry, scientific exposition, and music are a single contrapuntal invention. Is it Ada’s deathbed hallucination fueled by religion and laudanum or a future transhumanist utopia?

Avant Bard Theatre’s Ada and the Engine, by Lauren Gunderson and directed by Megan Behm, runs through March 26 at Gunston Arts Center. Pay what you can–$40.