Entertainment » Theatre

Ada and the Engine

by Christine Malcom
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Jun 25, 2019
A scene from "Ada and the Engine," which runs through August 5 at the The Artistic Home Theatre
A scene from "Ada and the Engine," which runs through August 5 at the The Artistic Home Theatre  

Coming off a production that garnered multiple Jeff Awards, The Artistic Home presents the Chicago premiere of Lauren Gunderson's "Ada and the Engine," a problematic play that, here, is carried well by two strong leads.

As with her play "Silent Sky," which charts part of the career of astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Gunderson liberally blends historical facts about the life of Ada Lovelace with dramatic license. The play picks up the narrative with Ada in her seventeenth year, rebelling against her conventional and strictly religious mother's attempts at control by attempting to run off with her tutor and clandestinely reading the poetry of her late father, Lord Byron.

At what her mother intends to be Ada's embarkation on the search for a husband, her daughter (already an accomplished and rapaciously curious mathematician) first encounters Charles Babbage, the eccentric father of the mechanical computer. The two undertake an enthusiastic correspondence that weaves through Ada's marriage at 19 to William King, later the Earl of Lovelace, and the birth of three children in rapid succession, as well Babbage's abandonment of his Difference Engine, which only existed in models, for the more powerful and sophisticated Analytical Engine.

Gunderson's blend here of an under-appreciated woman's scientific accomplishments with the social constraints they would have lived under deserves credit. This is, perhaps, especially true in a case like Lovelace's, where mother educated daughter in math and science precisely to counteract any erratic leanings Ada might have inherited from her father, yet still kept her rigidly on the path to a "good marriage."

However, Gunderson seems to be scrambling for drama in a number of respects here. The first act ends with an aborted kiss between Lovelace and Babbage, a widower twenty years her senior. The second act picks up in the same moment and sparks an enormous argument, one instigated, in reality, by a dispute over a spiteful, unsigned preface Babbage wanted Lovelace to attach to her translation of and expansion on an Italian paper on the Engine. Although this is likely meant to condense a number of Lovelace's purported affairs, the conflation problematically undercuts Lovelace's legitimate objections to Babbage's demands.

Whereas the first act sails along well in a blend of face-to-face interactions punctuated by excerpts from the pair's correspondence, the second is mired in the long argument, a protracted deathbed scene that once again alludes to the scandals that rippled beneath the surface of Lovelace's life, and a conversation in the afterlife with her father. The lasting impression is of a piece that is overcrowded and unfocused.

Shortcomings of the play aside, The Artistic Home's presentation of it is, overall, successful. Eleanor Kahn's scenic design is, perhaps, too ambitious for a small space that accommodates only a single row of chairs on all four sides.

The set is a kind of irregular cage, longer than wide, made of one by twos lined with semi-transparent plastic that houses rope lights. Although Cat Wilson's lighting design employs these beautifully to bring Lovelace's algorithm to life in the play's last moments, the set results in complicated sight lines and a space that's difficult for the cast to navigate, though transparent plastic chairs that distorted the audience's view of the far side of the set were an inspired choice.

Zachary Wagner's costume design for Ada herself was excellent. By the simple addition, removal or transformation of pieces with the actor on stage, we see her evolve from girl to wife to mother to woman and intellectual in her own right.

Under Monica Payne's direction. Brookelyn Hébert (Ada Lovelace) and John Mossman (Charles Babbage) skillfully grow the relationship between the two characters. Their chemistry alleviates many of the pacing problems, and both handle what could easily become cumbersome dialogue with aplomb.

Characters other than Ada and Babbage are not especially well-served by the play. As Lady Byron, Carolyn Kruse is rather one-note, but it may be that there simply is not much complexity to the role. As Mary Sommerville, Ada's mentor and an accomplished scientist and author in her own right, Laura Coleman is appealing, though the play gives her very little to do. It is, perhaps, noteworthy that the play indicates that one actor might double in these two roles.

As Lord Lovelace, Rich Holton suffers a similar fate. Gunderson seems only intermittently interested in a marriage based largely on practical concerns on both sides, and it's hard to know how to take the warm feelings between him and Ada in the middle of the play, given the decidedly oblique references to their estrangement on her deathbed. There are moments where Holton sparks with both Hébert and Mossman, but as with the older women doesn't give the actor much to work with.

John LaFlamboy certainly erupts on to the scene as Lord Byron, but as with Kruse, there isn't much in the way depth. Although doubling the roles of Ada's father and husband, as the play's text also indicates as a possibility, brings its own potential for subtext, again it seems that a single actor might have had the opportunity to display more of his range in playing both.

"Ada and the Engine" runs through August 4 at The Artistic Home Theatre, 1376 W. Grand, Chicago. For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit www.theartistichome.org

Christine Malcom is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Roosevelt University and Adjunct Faculty in Liberal Arts and Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a physical anthropologist, theater geek, and all-around pop culture enthusiast.


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