It would be difficult to overstate how much the modern world owes to Ada Lovelace — or, at the very least, how much she foretold of the modern world. In 1833, she met and befriended Charles Babbage, who produced the first viable design for an Analytical Machine. Ada wrote the algorithm that would make it work, which is widely regarded as the world’s first computer program. “Ada & the Engine,” on stage now at Know Theatre of Cincinnati, tells her story.
The story begins with Ada as a young debutante on the verge of her coming out into society. The debut party is held at the home of Charles Babbage (Brian Griffin), whom she admires for his work. They begin a correspondence that would continue for the rest of Ada’s life. When Babbage gives a lecture in Italy about his machine, Ada translates it into English, adding notes thrice as long as the original content that make the machine more real than Babbage could have dreamed, even though it would always remain theoretical in his lifetime.
All British women of this time frame were subject to constant moral policing, but Ada, as the daughter of the notorious hedonist poet Lord Byron, is particularly scrutinized. Her mother, with perhaps distasteful but benign intentions, encourages Ada to marry well as early as possible so that she can be shielded, somewhat, from the gossip. So, Ada marries Lord Lovelace, a decent and attractive man, though not her intellectual equal by a long shot.
Ada Lovelace was a truly remarkable woman, and it gives me great pleasure to report that her story is in competent hands all around. This is an excellent production on every level. The script is full of razor-sharp wit and arcs that take all the right turns at exactly the right moments. The set is beautifully evocative of both Victorian decorating and industrial design — including a breathtaking reveal at the end. Each member of the cast thoroughly owns their respective roles.
Gunderson’s script is incredibly demanding for the role of Ada, requiring someone who can live both youthful exuberance and tired maturity. Tess Talbot is flawless in that regard. As 18-year-old Ada, she can barely contain her enthusiasm, but it spills out so articulately and poetically that it’s impossible not to fall in love with the character from the get-go. As she ages, she becomes more serious without ever losing her confidence. In a later scene, Ada argues with Babbage, who becomes furious and berates her. It’s a heart-breaking betrayal of what had been, until then, a relationship between equals. But Ada refuses to yield. For a Victorian woman to not only strike back at her idol and mentor’s diatribe but to consistently gain the upper hand is a powerful sight, and it’s Talbot’s wonderful presence that gives the scene its heart.
Meanwhile, Annie Fitzpatrick, as Lady Annabella Byron, brings a nuanced and difficult character to life. Ada’s mother clearly loves her and has her interests at heart, but Lord Byron is a powerful presence, even long after he abandoned the family and died, and the best interests of a young woman are surely difficult to define in such a repressive (if often idealized) society. Lady Byron and Lord Lovelace (Cory Davenport) are as close to villains as the story has, but both are sympathetic characters whose missteps can be forgiven. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Davenport’s delivery of a single, “Huzzah!” becomes the show’s most hilarious moment.
“Ada & the Engine” is thoroughly engrossing throughout, but the ending is a production to behold in and of itself. Without giving too much away, it’s a sort of apotheosis for Ada, giving her a glimpse of all the implications of her work and a level of closure she likely never received in her life. It is a beautiful moment, and like the rest of the play, it should not be missed.
“Ada & the Engine” runs through May 12 at Know Theatre of Cincinnati.
Zach Moning is the communications manager at ArtsWave. Reach him here with questions or comments about ArtsWave Guide.