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Ada and the Memory Engine

a Drama w/ Comedy & Music
by Lauren Gunderson

COMPANY : Essential Theatre [WEBSITE]
VENUE : West End Performing Arts Center [WEBSITE]
ID# 5104

SHOWING : July 28, 2017 - August 27, 2017



One of the latest plays penned by our very first Essential Theatre Playwriting Award Winner and the Most Produced Living Playwright in America in 2016, Lauren Gunderson, this play is about Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer. Described by the Huffington Post as “a rare and special artistic achievement,” this delightful play gives you plenty to think about whether you’re a poet, a programmer, a history buff, a technophile or a hopeless romantic.

Director Ellen McQueen
Production Manager/TD Elisabeth Cooper
Ada Byron Lovelace Ashley Anderson
Man Evan Alex Cole
Charles Babbage Mark Cosby
Mary Sommerville Kathleen McManus
Lord Lovelace Brandon Partrick
Lady Anabella Byron Holly Stevenson
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"A" for "Ada"
by playgoer
Tuesday, August 1, 2017
Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, was raised without knowing her father, except by his reputation as a Romantic rake. In "Ada and the Memory Engine," Lauren Gunderson humanizes the scientific nature of Ada’s work by having her ache to know her father and by suggesting an unfulfilled romance between her and her mentor, Charles Babbage. Mr. Babbage invented a theoretical mechanism for performing calculations, and Ada created the first proto-computer program to make use of its capabilities. Babbage and Ada Lovelace are considered progenitors of the modern computer.

To add some dramatic conflict, Ms. Gunderson has Ada’s mother adamantly opposed to anything that hints of impropriety and casts Lord Lovelace as a fairly conventional romantic match Ada’s mother urges her to accept. Mary Sommerville, another historical figure, bridges the gap between propriety and scientific inquiry. A sixth historical personage, described as "Man" in the playbill, rounds out the cast.

The action takes place on a stage that represents various localities, with seating moved on and off to suggest them and with projections designed by Matthew Mammola showing approximation of the locales. Chris "Lito" Tamez’s set design has drafting desks stationed stage left and right for the entirety of the action, with the center section open. A painted design on the floor stylizes the blueprint of Babbage’s machine that is projected on the upstage screen before the show begins. Two mismatched but similar chandeliers hang high above the center section, but Harley Gould’s lighting design makes use of more modern effects to create the pools of light in which action occurs. The simple design works well, although the projections of interior scenes in act one tend to feature electrical lights that are glaringly out of period for the mid-nineteenth century. (One background reused in act two seems to have been cropped to remove the non-period ceiling fans.)

What really sets the period are the costumes and wigs. Jane Kroessig has created sumptuous period apparel that impresses with its authenticity and style. This is a lovely show, on the visual level. It’s also lovely in other ways.

Performances are fine across the board. Ashley Anderson embodies the exuberant joy for life of an 18-year-old at the start, but matures convincingly into motherhood and illness by the end. Holly Stevenson’s stern Lady Byron has beautiful speech patterns and ramrod-stiff bearing that echoes her no-nonsense approach to motherhood. Kathleen McManus fills her small role with grace and charm, and Brandon Partrick creates a Lord Lovelace whose palpable appreciation for all Ada can offer him as his wife melds beautifully with his bewildered expectations of appropriate behavior. Mark Cosby plays an intellectually obsessed genius with perhaps too much quivering of the lips, but with a pained soul that aches for something he can’t express. Evan Alex Cole, as the Man, appears only in the final scene, impressing with his singing skills.

It’s the final scene that causes the play to veer from perfection, in my view. Having Ada suddenly gain an insight into the power of binary arithmetic on her deathbed seems a stretch, and ending the show with a sub-par musical number takes us from the sublime to the unsatisfying. We know that Ada’s work has had an impact on the modern world; it’s not necessary to underline the advances in computer technology since her day, and tacking on an after-life encounter may complete Ada’s journey for parental acceptance, but it smacks of a dramatist’s desire to provide a tidy ending that is intended to be emotionally satisfying. It could be done much more subtly and enigmatically, while still allowing adequate closure.

Still and all, Ellen McQueen has directed a splendidly effective production of Ms. Gunderson’s flawed script. The action moves nicely, and performances work well individually and in conjunction with one another. Add another historical female scientist to the roster of figures Lauren Gunderson has brought to life on the stage. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]


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