It’s easy for me to forget that numbers live in everything, but after seeing Ada and the Engine at Avant Bard, it feels like my mind has been opened. The show radiates such a passion for mathematics, and a passion for its protagonist, that it is contagious, living on long after the show. It is a wonderful tribute to the ways we can see numbers if we look and think — and how we will see women in their history if we do the same.
Ada and the Engine generally follows its title. Set in the 1830s, it portrays the life of mathematician and writer Ada Lovelace from the age of 18, when she is first introduced to the idea of an analytical engine. The idea for this computing engine blossoms under Ada’s conceptualization, as she devotes her practical and philosophical intellect to envisioning how the machine will work, and its nonmathematical potential. But the show also follows Ada’s other love, Charles Babbage, who originally proposed this idea of a computing engine. Ada’s fondness for the machine grows alongside her fondness for Babbage, the two constants we are presented with as we watch her move through her life.
Avant Bard’s production smartly stages this in the round, on a simple utilitarian set (David Ghatan), where numbers hide in shapes that fit perfectly together on the tiled floor. Dina Soltan (Ada) then leads us through the moments of her life, adding to the cyclical, full-circle feeling of Lauren Gunderson’s play. Soltan is wonderful, bringing ardor and enthusiasm to Ada that is simply infectious. Under her interpretation, it is so easy to understand why the world of numbers is fascinating. She and Matthew Pauli (Charles Babbage) have chemistry that comes at the most unexpected, quiet moments, and it is lovely to witness. Jessica Lefkow and Jon Reynolds as Lady Byron/Mary Somerville and Lord Lovelace/Lord Byron do fantastic work as they differentiate between their two roles, with Lefkow doing some particularly remarkable dialect work. Lighting (Ian Claar) is also wonderful, with blue hues that highlight Lovelace and Babbage’s relationship, and Neil McFadden’s sound design somehow screams 1830 while also feeling more progressive, well-suited to a show about forward-thinking individuals.
This production builds on a foundation of love for these concepts, for math, for the revolutionary idea of a computing engine. It is easy for me to see how Megan Behm (director) extends that love to Ada herself, the history of math, and the ways women have contributed to that history. What feels more difficult is reconciling how a play about a woman, written by a woman, can ignore and even romanticize the gendered power structures at play in Lovelace’s life. For example, Lovelace was just 18 when her implied romance with 42-year-old Babbage began, and that is not really questioned in the play. Perhaps their relationship was completely consensual, but it at least warrants a discussion that the play didn’t engage in. It is difficult to fully revel in Ada Lovelace’s accomplishments when the men in her life are such an idealized focal point. It does make sense that they would be central to her story, because the story is historical, and history is framed and written as white, male, and cis-gendered. Lord Byron, Ada’s father, and Babbage are a large part of the facts we have documented: Lovelace was fascinated by her absent father, and many of her accomplishments came through working with Charles Babbage.
Still, I can’t overlook when a play about the world’s first computer programmer doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. All Lovelace’s passion and rightful expertise cannot eclipse the fact that men are at the center of this play. Lovelace is continually pulled back to Byron, and in her work with Babbage, she is positioned as his interpretess, not his equal — a fact deliberately pointed out when she tells him that he is “brilliant, but unpleasant,” while she is “brilliant, but unrecognized.” The absolute and unforgiving power imbalance between the privilege in the freedom to be unpleasant versus a life of genius without recognition cannot be overstated. It is a shame, because those moments are well written, and have the potential to be extremely poignant, should the play seek to point out the power imbalance between Lovelace and Babbage. Instead, Gunderson emphasizes Babbage and Lovelace as true confidants and companions, idealizing their yearning for each other rather than examining the nuances in their dynamic.
Although the cast and crew of this production did a fantastic job of bringing Ada and the Engine to life, I did leave wishing that I had seen a play just as dedicated to Lovelace’s ability but more acutely examining the power structures in her life. To include men in Ada Lovelace’s story is essential, but the show idealizes these men. And even with the moving personal closure that the production gives Lovelace, it does not encourage the audience to double-check that romanticization. Once it does, it will become what it wants to be: a true testament to Lovelace’s character and brilliance.
Running Time: Two hours with a 15-minute intermission
Ada and the Engine will run through 26, 2022, presented by Avant Bard Theatre performing at Gunston Arts Center, Theatre Two, 2700 South Lang Street, Arlington, VA, where there is ample free parking. Tickets ($40) are available online or by calling 703-418-4808. Pay-What-You-Can (PWYC) tickets are also available online in advance for previews and Saturday matinees at 2 p.m.
The Ada and the Engine program is online here.
COVID Safety: Proof of vaccination is mandatory for entry into the theater. A negative COVID-19 test administered within 72 hours is accepted from patrons with a religious or medical exemption. Face coverings must be worn at all times when inside the venue, including while watching the performance and when using the restrooms. Avant Bard follows the VDH/CDC recommendations for preserving public health.
Avant Bard restarts ‘Ada and the Engine’ (news story)