Review: Washington Avant Bard’s ‘Ada and the Engine’ Doesn’t Always Run Well
Much to the amazement of her not-too-brilliant husband, Lord Lovelace (Jon Reynolds), Ada and her friend and fellow mathematician Charles Babbage (Matthew Pauli) spend an evening explaining how the engine would work. The two intellectuals exchange descriptions, sensual details and the enthusiasm of the speakers giving the exchange an increasingly erotic side. Ada refers to the engine cogs and waves of flip-flop switches “like collapsing water, but not water, information, decimals, flowing, sliding and dancing symbols. By delivering such lines, Soltan makes his character’s excitement both believable and infectious.
This is one of the winning moments of “Ada”, directed with grace and ingenuity by Megan Behm, who however has not found a solution to the most laborious passages of the scenario on the dramaturgical level. The characters are genuine historical figures, a favorite ploy of the highly produced Gunderson, whose ‘Emilie: The Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight’ was produced by Avant Bard in 2017.
But “Ada” is not one of the playwright’s most skilful plays: its first half, in particular, gets bogged down in the exposition of Ada (1815-1852), often described today as the first programmer computer, whose father was – fun facts about Victorian STEM. ! — the poet Lord Byron. The first scenes showing her as ahead of her time – conflict with her mother (Jessica Lefkow), who wants Ada to be a wife, not a prime number fangirl, and delicate negotiations with Lovelace over spousal autonomy – seem obligatory and obvious. Lefkow and Reynolds’ tendency to paint their characters in broad strokes doesn’t help.
The story gains in complexity and emotional charge when it focuses on the relationship between Ada and Charles, which swirls with admiration, resentment, and not quite suppressed romantic feeling. Pauli conveys the brilliant inventor’s selfishness and emotional backwardness, qualities that at some point provoke a decisive confrontation with Ada. (“The algorithm was right, the HORSES were wrong!” she says when he criticizes his game losses.) The arena-like overtones of the round-the-clock staging and spare set complete such a conflict. (David Ghatan is the set designer; Alison Johnson designed the yesteryear costumes.)
But it’s Soltan who galvanizes the production by channeling Ada’s warmth, nervous determination, vulnerability and fervor for math and science. The performance beautifully serves up the final moments of the piece, which elegantly synthesize the ideas, themes and emotional undercurrents of the earlier scenes. Made with the invaluable help of lighting/projection designer Ian Claar and sound designer/sound composer Neil McFadden, it’s a moving and thrilling ending to a piece that, like many engines, runs easier at times than at times. others.
Ada and the engine, by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Megan Behm; accessories designer, Liz Long. 2 hours. $40, with paid performance. Through March 26 at the Gunston Arts Center, Theater Two, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. 703-418-4808. avantbard.org.