Ada and the Memory Engine
Theatre Cedar Rapids — through March 31
“…0 to 1. The entire universe is in their difference.”
There is a whole world just waiting to be discovered and brought into being.
There is spectacle in the unsuspecting. Complexity in the simple. An incredible potential for reality in the conjured. And sometimes, things happen to come into being because of a brilliant young woman who’s work languishes behind the scenes of a world maintaining the order of men. But Ada and the Memory Engine, running now at Theatre Cedar Rapids (tickets $15-25), isn’t about the patriarchy. It’s about a woman pushing through it and working within it to accomplish remarkable things.
Lauren Gunderson’s play centers around Ada Lovelace, daughter of the (in)famous Lord Byron and the Lady Annabella Byron — two people, near opposites, whose daughter was gifted with her father’s command of language and her mother’s command of numbers. Ada grew up under the care of her very strict mother — Annabella worked to combat the lascivious reputation Lord Byron left in legacy to Ada and to keep her away from the lures he succumbed to by grooming her for a legitimate place in society and tutoring her in poetry’s apparent opposite — numbers. But Ada’s spirit, a combination of her parents, persisted.
At 17, Ada meets Sir Charles Babbage at a society party. Their relationship sparks a decade’s long connection that helps to define and expand Babbage’s plans for an “engine” (Alan Turing’s invention of the modern computer wouldn’t occur until a century later), first a “difference engine,” later evolving into the “analytical engine” — the “memory engine” of the play’s title — which could “think.” Babbage is credited with dreaming it into existence, and (though she never tangibly realized them) Ada’s extensive notes for the device, showing her ability to imagine what it was capable of, that solidify her status as the very first computer programmer.
Ada and the Memory Engine begins shortly before that party.
The juxtaposition of our current technological world and a past existing with an extraordinary comparative lack of technology is made apparent at the outset in the runway-configured minimal set design by Kristen Geisler. It’s equally complex and simple, with acting cubes moved and arranged to become chairs, tables or podiums in different times and locations. Handwritten equations cover the walls (a bold color of blue — a mixture of teal and microsoft), and the dots of the original programming punch cards blanket the floor, keeping the brilliance and connection of Ada and Babbage always present.
The malleability of the boxes help to create an ever changing world — however, at times, moving the boxes could be a bit cumbersome in the small and intimate space. Transitions often occur while the characters read letters written between them — a smart location for a physical shift, and the performers slink in-between boxes with purpose and project vocally so that little is lost from page and action, and these physical transitions are smooth enough to maintain the momentum essential to any play.
In a contemporary period piece such as this one, individual pieces of a technical vision can go quite a few ways. It can hint at the time or an aspect of it, deny it completely or embrace it fully. Jenny Nutting Kelchen’s costumes were a beautiful and full embrace. Every performer was dressed in accurate spectacle befitting the time the story is set in. The elaborate and changeable costumes created a wonderful visual among the math and blue they lived within.
The original, live music by Emmy Palmersheim was a lovely addition. The electric ukulele evoked a marriage of “then” and “now,” and the moods Palmersheim composed fit the action and underlying tensions beautifully. Palmersheim stayed onstage for the entirety of the production, not “taking up space” necessarily — but I did have passing moments where I wished they were somehow incorporated more into the story performed.
Tad Paulson and Mic Evans play the other two triangle points in Ada’s story. Charles Babbage is the overly intelligent, dashing older professor; William Lovelace, the necessary adherence to society’s requirements enveloped in love and loyalty. Paulson’s interpretation of Babbage is imbued with humble attraction and quiet tragedy. It’s easy to see why Ada loves him so dearly. Evans plays Lovelace, Ada’s future husband, with such skill — he could so easily be an off-putting rival to the charismatic Babbage, but he is changed and supportive and the audience is grateful for his part in Ada’s story.
There is initial suspicion between the men, and no matter the actual truth of the time, Gunderson explores the notion that Ada loves Babbage and Lovelace both, in different and strangely non-competitive ways. The three of them together depict a respect seldom unearthed within a pervasive romantic tension, their subtlety and subtext well used to help illustrate and navigate this unique relationship.
The possibility of this is expertly driven by Jessica Link as Ada — she and these talented men all have an incredible chemistry between them. There is an ease to their interactions, and Link’s honesty and charisma as Ada are difficult to deny — for the audience as well as for Babbage and Lovelace.
Link’s Ada is full. She is complete — at 17 and at 36. She is giddy, and then she matures, and she is now a mother, and you can see the shift in her behavior and physical demeanor every time. Link is one of those actors who can access the emotional core unlike most people, and like only a handful of performers. For many actors with this ability, it can be easy to stretch out in that emotional core and revel in those emotions on the stage. But it is the tempering of that superpower that creates the ebbs and flows of interaction, reaction and personal growth of a character — the thing that gives them that essential third dimension and offers an honest-to-god truth expressed.
Link is a master of this trade, and this is very possibly my most favorite of her performances. She has surpassed herself in this role. Ada is the center of this play, but Jessica Link is the center of this show, and she is one of the most dynamic and nuanced epicenters of a play in Eastern Iowa that I have witnessed.
Lisa Kelly, a new director at Theatre Cedar Rapids, has done marvelous work on this production. The Grandon, one of my favorite spaces for theater, can be sticky when it comes to staging, but Kelly’s work was stellar within the spaces inherent limitations. Not once did I feel as though I missed a part of the action or a telling facial expression that would better illustrate a moment.
With a show that has so many different avenues to explore, Kelly has offered us a clear vision, smoothly activated with excellent pace, within a minimal world — allowing us to focus on the performances and story. There was one choice, however, I wasn’t a fan of: Lord Byron is present in the beginning of the show, but I really wanted him to be a lovely surprise saved for a key moment of action later on in the story. His early presence lessened the impact his scripted entrance could have had.
The script itself is excellent throughout the majority, but the ending does offer a test for any director. There is a quick and dirty temporal shifting that is jarring no matter how you slice it — a clear scriptural weakness. Despite the shortcomings of the final pages, Kelly’s interpretation gives the audience a version of the button needed to complete the story on stage, while simultaneously allowing it to live on in the minds of those who viewed it.
Every piece of this vision is an uncommon pairing. Delicate lace and bold, static, unapologetic colors. Electric music and a graceful waltz. A driven woman, full of charisma and genius — able to convince at least two men that her worth was important and necessary beyond what society had taught them — in a world that didn’t believe such a dichotomy could exist.
And perhaps this is an accuracy. Because though it was unbelievable they could exist together then, here they are, together in truth and solidarity, bringing to life this important moment in humanity’s history, that is finally being explored and told by some of the most pragmatic, hopeful and poetic of storytellers. Now is not then.
Lauren Gunderson’s Ada is so desperately and remarkably human. She feels and experiences and produces so much in her too short life, facing all of it with bravery and ferocity and deep admiration. She never got to see the world “see” her and her many accomplishments.
But now, I simply can’t look away. She is fierce. She is exceptional.
From zero to one — it’s not just binary, it’s a whole world.
If you’d like to learn more about Ada, check out this 2015 article from Wired Magazine. This quote from Florence Nightingale (within the article) says so much: “They said she could not possibly have lived so long, were it not for the tremendous vitality of the brain, that would not die.”
*The author would like to disclose that she auditioned for TCR’s cattle call play auditions last summer and was called back for, but not cast in, this play.