Dichotomies abound in “Ada and the Memory Engine,” which is probably as it should be for a play about a woman to whom math and music share the same “magic.” In keeping with the alternately literate and lyrical story of Ada Byron Lovelace (1815-1852), a self-professed “poetical scientist,” Decatur native Lauren Gunderson’s fact-based drama is decidedly high-minded, even though Essential Theatre’s regional premiere of it is moderately low-budget.
Born into British nobility and privilege, Ada is the only legitimate child of the scandalous Victorian-era poet Lord Byron, who promptly abandoned his wife and daughter (and died eight years later). She’s groomed by her imperious mother, Lady Annabella, to find a proper husband who might “diminish her temper,” her passionate curiosity about the arts, and her idealized image of the mythical father she never knew. When she catches Ada reading from a book of his poetry, Annabella rips out the pages, as if tearing him from the girl’s “fiber” altogether.
When Ada meets the noted mathematician, inventor and mechanical engineer Charles Babbage at a party, he effectively sweeps her off her feet with his talk of an analytical processing machine that would come to be considered a precursor to the 20th-century computer. Thus begins a 20-year (platonic) kinship between the two, who collaborate on perfecting his concept. That he was eventually dubbed the “father of computers” essentially makes her the (sadly unheralded) mother of computer programmers.
Ada effectively sweeps Babbage off his feet, too — with her “intellectual vibrancy” and “leaps of mental acuity,” as he puts it, as an “effervescence for the mind” who’s prone to “fits of the fantastic and demonstrative.” To be sure, such superlatives also apply to Gunderson’s own writing skills, which continue to amaze. Among her other work produced here are similar plays involving historical pre-feminists: 2013’s “Emilie” at Aurora, 2015’s “Silent Sky” at Theatrical Outfit and 2016’s “The Revolutionists” at 7 Stages.
The show is keenly directed by the actress Ellen McQueen, who has previously helmed some of Essential’s finer efforts, including 2006’s “Charm School” and 2010’s “Sally and Glen at the Palace.” She makes the most of little in the way of costly production values — setting the various scenes using projections (designed by Matthew Mammola) in lieu of elaborate scenery, for example, although Jane Kroessig’s period costumes are top-notch.
McQueen also engenders a rather remarkable turn by newcomer Ashley Anderson as Ada, an unfamiliar performer to me whose playbill bio mentions nary one earlier stage appearance. She may not convey the passage of time quite convincingly, but she captures the character’s “explicit giddiness” with determined gusto.
Moreover, Anderson holds her own admirably alongside an experienced supporting cast that features Mark Cosby as Babbage, an especially superb Holly Stevenson as Lady Byron, Brandon Partrick as Ada’s stiff-upper-lipped stuffed shirt of a husband, Kathleen McManus in a glorified cameo as her tutor, and Evan Alex Cole as a father figure in the play’s climactic dream sequence.
In that beautifully realized ending, math and music finally and literally coalesce — rendering Essential’s “Ada and the Memory Engine” an endeavor well worth remembering, indeed.
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