Excitement of discovery drives ‘Ada and the Engine’ at Silver Spring Stage

Playwright Lauren Gunderson brings to life the love of a math whiz and an inventor who came up with a precursor to the computer.

Silver Spring Stage’s streaming production of Ada and the Engine is an exciting mixture of history, science, and poetry. Written by Lauren Gunderson, it tells the story of Ada Byron, a mathematician and daughter of the notorious Lord Byron, and her friendship with Charles Babbage, inventor of an advanced calculating machine known as the difference engine. Directed by Jon Jon Johnson, this version is performed live on Zoom with each actor in their own “box.”

Kevin Dykstra and Danielle Gallo

Danielle Gallo gives a fierce passion to Ada. Several times she angrily rebuffs those who would seek to control her, determined to follow her own path. She also gives an eagerness to math and science, passionately talking about them to anyone interested. She describes the workings of the difference engine in poetical terms, caught up in its elegance and possibilities for the future. She gives a powerful, at times heartrending, performance.

Dayalini Pocock plays Lady Anabella, Ada’s mother, with a harshness. Determined to “save” her daughter from Byron’s notorious reputation, she pops up at inopportune times, reminding Ada not to talk of mathematics to eligible men. At times she seems sympathetic, telling her daughter that a good marriage is the only freedom available to women. More often, however, she rails against the “darkness” she sees in Ada, which she claims comes from her father.

Kevin Dykstra brings a charm to Charles Babbage. He excitedly talks to Ada about the engine, eagerly answering her technical questions and swiftly brushing past the embarrassment of her last name. He and Gallo have terrific chemistry together, laughing together and sharing ideas. Their argument late in the play turns heated, with both hurling hurtful things at each other. It makes for a powerfully engaging performance.

Nick Temple brings a complexity to Lord Lovelace, Ada’s love interest. At first, he seems blunt and determined to take control, ordering Ada and Babbage to stop seeing each other. Later, he shows himself to be a caring husband, grateful that his wife’s involvement in Babbage’s project has helped her poor health. Used to being obeyed, he stands up to Lady Anabella’s puritanical demands, giving Ada anything that will make her comfortable.

Susan Holliday gives a practicality to Mary Sommerville, fellow scientist and Ada and Babbage’s friend. Sternly advising Babbage not to pursue Ada, she reminds him to “carry the one.” Walter Riddle brings an easy charm to Byron, making witticisms and bringing a smile to the audience. He also reveals great emotional depth, though, apologizing for what he has done to his daughter and remarking to the comment “You were a great man,” “Just not a good one.” The notorious figure becomes fully human.

Set Designer Leigh K. Rawls has built a set that works well for the virtual stage. For most scenes, a simple white and black screen lies in the background, giving a sense of continuity to all the boxes; one scene has a mattress. The actors carry any books and papers with them. Costume Designer Stephenie Yee creates outfits that feel appropriate for the age and help distinguish each character. Lovelace and Byron wear colorful cravats, while Ada starts the play in a lovely low-cut dress, later changing to a white silk one.

Lighting Designer Ian Claar uses unique lighting for one scene to highlight the unusual atmosphere, and in another scene puts the lights low to simulate a sickroom. Otherwise, all scenes are bright enough for the audience to clearly see. Sound Designer Jeff Goldgeier throws out sound effects, such as knocking on a door, as well as the hum of machinery for some emotional moments. While this helps to emphasize the connection between the two actors, the sound can distract from the dialogue; it is most effective during times of silence. The ending also has a remarkable sound effect that works beautifully. Dialect Coach Lena Winter ensures that the British accents are appropriate for the characters’ classes and background while also being intelligible for the audience.

Jon Jon Johnson does a wonderful job as director. Even though the actors are physically separate, they interact as though they were onstage together, passing books and papers back and forth, as well as reacting to slaps and pulls. Their excitement over invention and pursuing science is infectious, allowing the audience to share in their joy at discovery while also capturing normal human feelings of jealousy and revenge. Ada and the Engine gives dramatic life to history and science, blending the power of live performance with the skill of technology. It is not to be missed.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, including a 10-minute intermission.

Ada and the Engine is available for live streaming through February 6, 2021 on the Silver Spring Stage website. For information on this and future productions, please visit their website.


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