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With a few clanks, ‘Ada and the Engine’ offers an eye-opening ride through computer history

Mishy Jacobson in "Ada and the Engine" at Central Square Theater.Nile Scott Studios

CAMBRIDGE — Not just central to our lives, computers today threaten to become our lives, with desktops, laptops, smartphones, and tablets constantly beckoning to us and virtually consuming our every waking hour.

Ada Lovelace, too, was consumed by computers. Or, rather, by the dream of computing, which she helped to make a reality.

A 19th-century British mathematician (and the daughter of Lord Byron) who has been credited as the first computer programmer and called “the prophet of the computer age,” Lovelace is the subject of Lauren Gunderson’s “Ada and the Engine.”

Now at Central Square Theater under the direction of Debra Wise, “Ada” is not without its problems, but it’s a generally solid addition to Gunderson’s body of work, much of which has brought a feminist perspective to the stories of visionary women of the past.


The playwright’s description of Ada Lovelace in her script — “A woman of our time stuck in hers” — often applies to Gunderson’s heroines, who have included female pioneers of science.

In the past decade, Central Square Theater has led the way in bringing her work to the attention of local audiences, serving as the site of last year’s production of “The Half-Life of Marie Curie” (with Wise in the cast), about the pioneering physicist, as well as a memorable 2014 production of “Emilie: La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight,” about the 18th-century mathematician and physicist. (The Boston-area fringe company Flat Earth Theatre did an excellent job five years ago with “Silent Sky,” Gunderson’s play about early 20th-century Cambridge astronomer Henrietta Leavitt.)

American Theatre Magazine reports that Gunderson tied with Lynn Nottage for first on the Top 20 Most Produced Playwrights list, with 24 productions of her plays scheduled for the 2022-2023 season. It’s the second time Gunderson has topped the list.


Part of the reason for that is her gift for smart, sharp, fast-paced dialogue. Another reason: good roles for talented actresses.

In Mishy Jacobson’s vibrant, all-out performance, Ada is a mind on fire (”I’m terribly good at maths, and terribly bored with everything else,” she says) and eager for the thrill of discovery when we first meet her at age 18. She can see what she calls “the poetry of science.”

When renowned mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage (Diego Arciniegas) tells her he is developing a digital device called a Difference Engine, Ada is instantly alive to the “engine’s” possibilities. Beyond the data-storing, number-crunching capabilities Babbage envisions, Ada predicts: “It will change the world.”

History would judge that a pretty good call. In 1830s England, it certainly changes Ada’s life. Though she accedes to the wishes of her stern mother, Lady Annabella Byron (Kortney Adams), and marries the stuffy Lord Lovelace (John Hardin), Ada enters into a working partnership with Charles.

From left: John Hardin, Mishy Jacobson, and Diego Arciniegas in "Ada and the Engine."Nile Scott Studios

When he later develops a prototype of an Analytical Engine, considered a forerunner of the digital computer, Ada translates an article about the Engine — while adding her own copious notes. Those notes amount to the first published computer program.

Now, shared intellectual excitement is not necessarily the easiest state to communicate onstage, but Jacobson and Arciniegas make that connection palpable. The actors subtly hint, too, at the romantic feelings flickering around the edges of the bond between Ada and Charles, more than two decades her senior. In the less showy role, Arciniegas skillfully conveys the depth of feeling within Babbage’s Victorian reserve.


Speaking of showy roles: Very late in the play, a hitherto unseen character flamboyantly enters the scene. While dramaturgically defensible and to a certain extent foreshadowed earlier in the play, the shift of focus nonetheless struck me as a misguided choice by Gunderson, one that knocks “Ada” off-balance.

The play regains its balance with a lovely, balletic sequence but then concludes with a final moment that is intended by director Wise to emphasize the connection between Ada and our own time, but that falls jarringly flat.

Other quibbles: Periodic offstage noises, apparently meant to suggest the workings of the engine, prove distracting. In Act One, the play could use more hints of the conflict between Ada and Charles that suddenly erupts at the top of Act Two. When Ada is at death’s door, Lord Lovelace — who has been depicted for much of the play as a somewhat obtuse but reasonably decent chap — utters an unfathomably cruel line. Even though the husband is deeply wounded at that moment, the line seems out of character.

A strength of the Central Square production is the intricately detailed facsimile of the Difference Engine onstage. The work of props designer and computer science consultant Dick Rubinstein — who, according to a playbill note, spent two years creating it — drew the fascinated attention of spectators during intermission at Saturday night’s performance.

Ada Lovelace did not live long. She died at 36, the same age as her fabled father. But her contributions were not forgotten, and when a language for large-scale computer programming was devised four decades ago, it was called Ada.



Play by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Debra Wise. Brit d’Arbeloff Women & Science Production presented by Central Square Theater. At Central Square Theater, Cambridge. Through Oct. 23. Tickets start at $25. 617-576-9278 ext. 1,

Don Aucoin can be reached at Follow him @GlobeAucoin.