With Science and Poetry, ‘Ada’ Unearths an Early Engine of Progress

Long before the computer as we know it, Ada Lovelace was busy dreaming it up. Ada and the Engine, Lauren Gunderson’s play about the early inventor, runs at Edmonds Driftwood Players through 3/17. 


For the last five or six years, it seems you can’t throw a rock without hitting a Lauren Gunderson production. Perennially numbered as one of the most produced playwrights in the country, Gunderson varies wildly as to her subject matter but always strives to center female voices, placing their passion and wit, their power and frailty, center stage. 

Ada and the Engine is one of a particular subset of Gunderson’s plays, which focus on “forgotten” women of science. She has also written about physicist and chemist Marie Curie; Emilie du Chatelet, the French natural philosopher and mathematician who translated Isaac Newton’s Principia into French; and American astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who discovered how to measure the distance to other galaxies. 

But it is Ada Lovelace, with her contradictory blend of poetry and science, that burns perhaps the brightest amongst Gunderson’s luminaries. Edmonds Driftwood Players’ production of Ada and the Engine, directed by Eric Bischoff and on stage now through March 17, is a charming and engaging look at one of the foremost mathematical minds of any age. Though the men in her life certainly have their parts to play in shaping Ada’s story, in the play’s final, transcendent moments, it is Ada’s voice alone that sings out to us from the beyond. 

A quick historical primer is wholly unnecessary for the lucky theatregoers who were treated to EDP’s excellent and extensive historical displays in the Wade James Theatre’s lobby, but may be helpful for everyone else. Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (nee Byron), the darling of STEM circles everywhere, lived from 1815 to 1852 and is regarded by many (though not all) as the first computer programmer. A polymath with an immense gift for mathematics, music, and languages, her collaboration with mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage forms the (semi-fictionalized) background for the play. Babbage is credited with originating the concept of a digital programmable computer, for which Ada wrote the first computer programming, though the computer itself (designed to be as big as a ballroom) never came to be during either’s lifetime. 

The play opens on a young Ada (played here by Guneet Kaur Banga), brilliant and high-spirited, with her genius for mathematics — and disdain for the strictures of Victorian manners — on full display. Her preference for such a seemingly cold, passionless subject was cultivated by Ada’s sternly religious mother, Lady Byron (Ingrid Sanai Buron), almost as an inoculation against any potential artistic tendencies inherited from her father. Ada’s father was the mad, bad poet George, Lord Byron (Ines Kreitlein), who left his daughter another brand of genius, but also a wealth of scandal; he was a notorious bed-hopper, even purportedly bedding his own half-sister. 

Ada, despite her desires to be a “bride of science,” is pushed by her mother to marry someone with wealth and respectability to ward off the gossip that comes with being the daughter of a notorious rake — namely, the kind but conservative Lord Lovelace (BJ Smyth). Complicating this scheme is the warm, intimate friendship she develops with fellow mathematician and inventor Babbage (Sumant Gupta), a true marriage of like minds that spurs them both into greater mathematical discoveries and becomes the primary relationship for both (other interested parties, like spouses, notwithstanding). Ada and Babbage collaborate on plans for Babbage’s greatest (theoretical) invention, the “Analytical Engine,” a precursor to modern computers. But when the two clash on how to present their ideas to the public, and as Ada’s health begins to fail, questions of love and legacy come to the fore.

Banga’s Ada is a fine blend of shyness and confidence, nicely arced throughout the piece as Ada manages to (somewhat) remove herself from under her mother’s thumb and come into her intellectual own. Banga avoids a common pitfall in portraying Gunderson’s quirky heroines, bringing just enough left-of-center energy to the character to show how difficult Ada found it to fit into society’s mold of “acceptable” behavior for women of her time without reading like a sort of Victorian manic-pixie dream girl. Gupta’s Babbage is less effusive, but the actor still brings out facets both of Babbage’s sweetness as well as his less attractive qualities, particularly his tendencies toward pride and cowardice. The confrontation between Ada and Babbage that spans over the act break, where the almost-lovers finally tear off their masks and reveal hard, hard truths to one another, is the fulcrum upon which the play turns, and Banga and Gupta give it the weight it deserves while still getting laughs. 

I enjoyed Smyth’s Lord Lovelace, played as a bit of a stiff, but with a tender heart at bottom; a manhandling kiss he delivers to Banga near the end of Act I is an excellent bit of physical comedy, and probably got the biggest laugh of the night. Watching Smyth’s portrayal of his character’s growing affection for his odd wife made the eventual endpoint of their relationship all the more devastating.  Buron did well at portraying her character’s mixed feelings of devotion and revulsion for the daughter in whom she can only see the father, while Elizabeth Shipman made the most of her limited stage time playing Mary Sommerville, the Scottish scientist who was a friend and mentor to Ada. And in the play’s final moments, set in a sort of liminal non-space, Kreitlein managed to capture Byron’s humor as well as his pathos. 

Scenic designer Leanne Markle’s set is spare but effective — the action takes place on and around various massive gears — and the lighting and sound design (Gwyn Skone and Bischoff), too, isn’t flashy but gets the job done; I particularly liked the sound and lighting effects in the play’s final scenes, which hearken back to the rainbows and prisms Ada fixates on in her last scene with Babbage. 

All in all, Ada and the Engine is an enjoyable night from a mainstay of local community theatre, midway through its 65th season. And don’t worry if your enthusiasm for math is (like my own) somewhat less than that of the play’s protagonists. There’s just as much of the humanities as the sciences at the heart of this piece.

Ada and the Engine runs through 3/17 at Edmonds Driftwood Players. Tickets ($30) here.

Jill Farrington Sweeney is a Texas ex-pat getting to know the Seattle-area arts scene, and is perpetually on the hunt for good Mexican food. Her writing has appeared on TheaterJones, Onstage NTX, and NWTheatre.