“Ada and the Engine” — written by Lauren Gunderson, produced by Alika Codispoti and Maura Suilebhan, and directed by Jon Jon Johnson for Silver Spring Stage — opened virtually on Friday, January, 15, 2021. Typical of several of Gunderson’s works, this play illuminates the life of a little-known woman who made a big impact in her field of expertise. In this case, the plot revolves around the daughter of the poet, Lord Byron, who he abandoned along with her mother at birth. Byron, if you remember, was a rogue who died young and part of the British Romantic poets that included Shelley, Keats, Coleridge, and Wordsworth. Ada (Danielle Gallo) was his daughter. She was brilliant mathematician and is recognized today as the first woman programmer. She programmed for Charles Babbage (Kevin Dykstra) who is credited with developing the prototype for the first computer.
Ada’s mother, Lady Anabella Byron (Dayalini Pocock), was a bitter woman and, although she made sure her daughter was well educated, especially in mathematics, she could be very harsh. She forced her 18-year-old child to marry Lord Lovelace (Nick Temple) in order to achieve some social standing for the two of them. Ada’s close friend and tutor, Mary Summerville (Susan Holliday), also encouraged disciple to expand her mind and enabled her relationship with Babbage. Ada meets Babbage right before her engagement to Lovelace and they develop a intellectual bond. In this drama, there are some romantic sparks that seem to be put aside due to their age difference and, later, Ada’s marriage.
Lingering in the background and appearing at the end of the play is Byron (Walter Riddle) himself. There is a deep conversation with the daughter he only saw once as an infant before his death. Ada requested that she be buried next to her father even though she never really knew him.
This production is very much worth watching and kept my attention throughout. It also spotlights another woman in history we should all appreciate and understand.
The focus of the play is Ada’s passion for mathematics and Babbage’s engine. Although her marriage seems to have developed, if not into love, at least into a mutual fondness. Ada continues to help Babbage with his engine, and she, herself, comes up with the idea of the 1 and 0 coding still used in computer programming.
Gallo captures Ada’s enthusiasm for numbers and her awe of Babbage, especially in the early part of the show. We see this awe diminish a bit at the end, but Gallo keeps Ada lively and passionate.
Dykstra is also excellent in his role as Babbage. We also see his love for mathematics and his emotional investment in his engine. His devotion to Ada, at the end, is heartfelt.
Pocock’s portrayal of Lady Byron is very believable as the shrewish abandoned wife of the famous infidel, Byron. Her relationship to Ada does not change, and Pocock’s performance highlights her harshness but stops short at making Lady Byron a true villain. She is a complicated woman, and Pocock lets us see that complexity.
Temple, Holliday, and Riddle provide great support to the main characters. I was especially moved by Riddle’s portray of Byron.
The presentation is done in a Zoom format. The set by Leigh K. Rawls is imaginative. It is clear shortly after the start that the actors are in their homes or at least physically isolated from each other due to the pandemic. Each one has a similar panel behind them to keep continuity. Stephanie Yee’s costumes help recreate the Victorian era.
Due to the limitations of Zoom, there were times the lighting was too harsh or too shadowed and the sound, especially in Gallo’s case, went in and out. Hopefully those issues will be fixed in future performances. Although the actors worked on intimacy with a coach, Helen Aberger, so much is lost, especially in theater, when you can’t touch or not touch another character. I personally, have problems with not being able to see the whole person. So much body language is absent, a part of live theatre that makes it so exciting. But until this plague is over, we have to adapt if we want to continue to have live performances.
There are some flaws with the drama itself. Despite the actors’ enthusiasm, Ada’s and Babbage’s long mathematical speeches are a bit hard to follow for those who don’t know the terminology or understand the math. There are some historical changes, i.e., Lovelace was not a Lord when he married Ada. I am not sure if it was the virtual format or the play itself, but I never felt the electricity between Babbage and Ada. The characters of Sommerville and Lovelace lacked some depth. Had I not seen other works by the playwright, I may not have felt as disappointed, but thinking of Gunderson’s other work done at Silver Spring Stage, “Silent Sky,” this one is not as well crafted.
This production is very much worth watching and kept my attention throughout. It also spotlights another woman in history we should all appreciate and understand. Ada Byron Lovelace may be more consequential to our modern world than her more celebrated parent.
Running time: Two hours and 5 minutes with one ten-minute intermission.
“Ada and the Engine” plays weekends through February 6, 2021 at Silver Spring Stage. To buy your tickets online, go to this link. This is a virtual production but still requires a ticket to view. Silver Spring Stage is located at 10145 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD, in the Woodmoor Shopping Center.