With just a few clicks, “Ada and the Engine” offers an eye-opening journey through the history of computing
A 19th century British mathematician (and daughter of Lord Byron) who has been credited as the first computer programmer and called “the prophet of the computer age”, Lovelace is the subject of Lauren Gunderson’s “Ada and the Engine”.
Now at the Central Square Theater under the direction of Debra Wise, “Ada” isn’t without its issues, but it’s a generally solid addition to Gunderson’s body of work, much of which has brought a feminist perspective. stories of visionary women of the past. .
The playwright’s description of Ada Lovelace in his screenplay—”A woman of our time stuck in her own”—often applies to Gunderson’s heroines, who have included pioneering women in science.
Over the past decade, the Central Square Theater has led the way in bringing her work to the attention of local audiences, serving as the site of last year’s production of “The Half-Life of Marie Curie” (with Wise in the Cast), about the pioneering physicist, as well as a memorable 2014 production of “Emilie: La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight”, about the 18th-century mathematician and physicist. (Boston-area fringe company Flat Earth Theater did a great job five years ago with “Silent Sky,” Gunderson’s play about early 20th-century Cambridge astronomer Henrietta Leavitt.)
American Theater Magazine reports that Gunderson is tied with Lynn Nottage for first place on the list of the 20 most produced playwrights, with 24 productions of his plays scheduled for the 2022-2023 season. This is the second time Gunderson has topped the list.
This is partly due to his gift for clever, sharp and fast dialogue. Another reason: good roles for talented actresses.
In Mishy Jacobson’s vibrant, all-around performance, Ada is spirited on fire (“I’m terribly good at math and terribly bored with everything else,” she says) and hungry for the thrill of discovery when we meet her for the first time at 18. She can see what she calls “the poetry of science”.
When famed mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage (Diego Arciniegas) tells her that he is developing a digital device called a difference engine, Ada is instantly aware of the “engine’s” possibilities. Beyond the data storage and number processing capabilities envisioned by Babbage, Ada predicts, “It’s going to change the world.”
History would judge that was a very good decision. In 1830s England, it certainly changes Ada’s life. Although she grants the wishes of her stern mother, Lady Annabella Byron (Kortney Adams), and marries the stuffy Lord Lovelace (John Hardin), Ada enters into a working partnership with Charles.
When later developing a prototype analytical engine, considered a precursor to the digital computer, Ada translated an article on the engine – while adding his own copious notes. These notes are the first published computer program.
Now, shared intellectual excitement isn’t necessarily the easiest state to communicate on stage, but Jacobson and Arciniegas make that connection palpable. The cast also subtly alludes to the romantic feelings that flicker around the edges of the bond between Ada and Charles, more than two decades her senior. In the less conspicuous role, Arciniegas skillfully conveys the depth of feeling within Babbage’s Victorian reserve.
Speaking of showy roles: Very late in the play, a new character comes on stage in a flamboyant way. While dramaturgically defensible and to some extent heralded earlier in the play, the shift in focus nonetheless struck me as a mistaken choice by Gunderson, one that unbalances “Ada.”
The piece regains its balance with a beautiful ballet sequence but then ends with a final moment which is intended by director Wise to underscore Ada’s connection to our own time, but which falls flat.
Other quibbles: Periodic off-stage noises, apparently intended to suggest engine operation, prove annoying. In act one, the play could use more clues from the conflict between Ada and Charles that suddenly erupts at the climax of act two. When Ada is near death, Lord Lovelace – who has been portrayed for much of the play as a somewhat obtuse but reasonably decent fellow – utters an incredibly cruel line. Even though the husband is deeply hurt at the time, the line seems out of place.
One of the strengths of the Central Square production is the painstakingly detailed facsimile of the Difference Engine on stage. The work of prop designer and computer consultant Dick Rubinstein – who, according to a program note, spent two years creating it – caught the spellbound attention of audience members during intermission during Saturday night’s performance.
Ada Lovelace did not live long. She died at 36, the same age as her legendary father. But his contributions have not been forgotten, and when a language for large-scale computer programming was devised four decades ago, it was called Ada.
ADA AND THE ENGINE
Play by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Debra Wise. Arbeloff’s Brit Women & Science Production presented by Central Square Theatre. At the Central Square Theater in Cambridge. Until October 23. Tickets start at $25. 617-576-9278 ext 1, www.CentralSquareTheater.org