She’s well past the point of being just the pride and joy of Decatur and the Atlanta theater community. Lauren Gunderson is now the most produced playwright in the country. Although her work has been staged all over the city – and staged memorably — Gunderson has now returned to the home of her first local work, Essential Theatre, with her 2015 play Ada and the Memory Engine. It runs in rep with Essential’s world premiere Another Mother through August 27 at the West End Performing Arts Center.
Central Works, the Bay Area theater company that produced the original run of the show, describes the play as “Jane Austen Meets Steve Jobs” — and it’s an apt summation. Gunderson’s work has a captivating central figure in Ada Byron (Ashley Anderson), who is credited with being the first (unofficial) computer programmer.
She is the daughter of poet Lord Byron, who has left her and her mother Anabella (Holly Stevenson) shortly after her birth and passed away eight years after. Anabella — herself a mathematician — wants Ada to marry suitor Lord Lovelace (Brandon Partrick), who looks at Ada merely as a wife and not as a woman seeking professional fulfillment. In one of their best exchanges, Ada becomes a bit bemused at Lovelace’s questions about the children she will eventually give birth to.
Ada is far more intrigued by the presence of Charles Babbage (Mark Cosby), a mathematician who has invented the analytical engine. When she translates an article on the engine and provides Babbage her own notes on it (“twice as many pages,” Babbage notes. “No, thrice,” she says in glee) she has developed the first bit of computer programming. Their relationship is professional at first, then a friendship, but it’s clear to everyone that they enjoy each other’s company. Ada’s eyes light up when Babbage is in the room, even when Lovelace is nearby.
This is heady, intellectual work from Gunderson. If the first few moments seem like the play will be Victorian-era stiff, it’s not at all. Surprisingly, this works on a number of levels and is full of life, emotion, science and historical context. A triangle of sort develops between Ada, Lord Lovelace and Babbage. Director Ellen McQueen’s version also draws the unexpected humor out of the play.
Gunderson has excelled in writing captivating, headstrong female characters — something she shares with fellow playwright Topher Payne — and Ada has a decidedly feminist streak. She doesn’t really care what her mother or husband expect her to be.
That said, as sharp as the play is, the first act is the most efficient. It’s also smoothly paced. The second act is shorter and veers into some territory some may not see coming, with a musical number closing the show. Even when it veers off into somewhat unorthodox turf, however, it’s never less than captivating. Gunderson’s writing is seasoned and deliberate; she has become a playwright whose work is mature, heavy not just on character but in scope.
Yet Ada and the Memory Engine would not work without the cast McQueen has gathered. Kathleen McManus has a single scene as Mary Sommerville — too bad the play doesn’t have more for her to do. Yet everyone else takes full advantage of Gunderson’s words. Stevenson brings her usual regal quality to the role of the protective mother, and Evan Alex Cole has a nice scene at the end in a reunion sequence. Cosby — who returned to Atlanta in 2015 — makes Babbage goofy, energized and more comfortable talking about algorithms than feelings.
The play hinges on the performance of newcomer Anderson, though, and she is up to the challenge. She may not age as impressively as the play demands (it opens in 1835 and goes through 1852), but she is wide-eyed in her passions and stubborn in dealing with those around her. She has a terrific, unspoken chemistry with Cosby’s Babbage, who becomes a father figure. The fact that Ada and Babbage are more alive onstage than Ada and Lovelace is precisely the point.
With Anderson at the center, Gunderson’s play is one of the treats of the summer. It’s fairly deep material that nonetheless proves to be enjoyable. It’s also an impressive start for Essential Theatre’s annual offerings of plays.