Cardinal celebrates woman whose love of numbers helped birth today’s tech

By John Lyle Belden

“Good women make for better men.”

This line, spoken by Ada Byron Lovelace in “Ada and the Engine,” the play by Lauren Gunderson presented by Cardinal Stage in Bloomington, is a good summation of the young Countess’s collaboration with fellow mathematician Charles Babbage, credited with inventing the precursor to the modern computer. He envisioned the “engine,” but she saw its true potential.

Ada (played by Megan Massie) was the only legitimate child of scandalous and legendary poet Lord Byron and his wife Anabella (Francesca Sobrer). He abandoned them when she was a baby, giving her little more than a verse she would treasure and a family stain upon her reputation.

Perhaps we can credit the rakish poet in a backhanded way for how Ada’s genius flowered, as her mother had her thoroughly schooled in mathematics in a vain attempt to keep her away from creative endeavors. Her voracious appetite for unlocking the mysteries of maths brings Ada into the orbit of Babbage (Eric Olson), who desperately seeks funds for completing his Difference Engine, which could revolutionize accounting by eliminating human error while handling large numbers in making accurate sums. As he and Ada converse, and later correspond, he realizes the machine could be modified and expanded to do more mathematical functions – the Analytical Engine.

Ada’s tutor, Mary Sommerville (Sobrer), warns Babbage he is too old for then-18 Ada, and especially not to invite the scandal many feared would follow her infamous family name. He insists he is only interested in intellectual stimulation, and she settles for a friendship in letters while accepting the courtship and proposal of Lord Lovelace (Kevin Aoussou).

The marriage does little to lessen the tension between Lovelace and Babbage, but they agree to let Ada write a translation of a paper on the Engine, complete with notes to clarify and explain its principles and capabilities – the Notes would not only be twice the length of the original paper, but also give applications and ideas, including a punch-card driven algorithm since credited as the first computer program, beyond what Babbage had envisioned. She even saw its number-crunching for other uses of numeric symbols, including musical notes.

Now, they just have to find some way to build it.

Gunderson’s focus in this drama, aside from Ada’s contributions to STEM, is on the likely relationship between her and Babbage. Historians might take issue with how close their friendship gets. Still, the story respects that given the pressures of British high society at the time, and the facts on record, any deeper love was unrequited. Yet there are some sparks here, which Massie and Olson masterfully wield in their moments alone. Sobrer’s Anabella, though meaning well, can’t help but play the tyrant in her constant diligence against the “Byron madness” that haunts her and her daughter. Aoussou portrays a man in a tough spot, but coming to understand his Ada does love him, as well as her Engine.

Aoussou also gives a nice cameo as Lord Byron himself.

An interesting stage floor, designed by Reuben Lucas, runs down the center of the theater, with audience seating on either side. Director Kate Galvin has the performances balanced with equal face time in each direction. Each end of the stage represents the two sides of Ada’s life: one the Victorian elegance of a British lady, the other a steampunk-inspired vision of Babbage’s world.

Equal parts inspiring and romantic, “Ada and the Engine” gives us a celebration of the lives of arguably the great-grandparents of the machine you are likely reading this on. Performances run through April 16 at Waldron Auditorium, 122 S. Walnut St., Bloomington. Get information and tickets (“pay what you will” pricing) at cardinalstage.org.

Stellar Summit debut with ‘Silent Sky’

By John Lyle Belden

A century ago, a woman helped revolutionize astronomy, a perfect subject to inaugurate Indy’s new woman-centered theater company, Summit Performance Indianapolis.

“Silent Sky,” by Lauren Gunderson, playing through July 22 on the Basile Stage of the Phoenix Theatre, is the story of Henrietta Leavitt, who, shortly before 1900, joined a team of women working for the astronomy professor at Harvard College (now University) near Boston. Acting as the “Hidden Figures” of their day, Dr. Pickering (who we never meet in this play) calls these women “Computers,” a word not yet attached to the modern device, but still apt. More crudely, they were also referred to as “Pickering’s Harem.”

Though women weren’t allowed to actually use the state-of-the-art telescope, Leavitt (Carrie Ann Schlatter) finds excitement in identifying stars and celestial phenomena on its glass photographic plates. She joins no-nonsense team leader Annie Cannon (Molly Garner) and feisty Scottish immigrant Williamina Fleming (Gigi Jennewien), Pickering’s former housekeeper and his first Computer. They are supervised by the professor’s assistant, Peter Shaw (Adam Tran), a man whose heart really isn’t in his work – until he meets Henrietta.

But the ties of family beckon, as Henrietta’s dear sister Margaret (Devan Mathias) calls her to their father’s Wisconsin home when he falls ill. Even there, she continues her work, seeking to make sense and pattern of the varying brightness in the stars she studies. Margaret tires of her sister’s obsession, and finds solace at her piano – what happens next, as the saying goes, is history.

Produced by Summit founder and Artistic Director Lauren Briggeman and directed by Lori Wolter Hudson, the play makes excellent use of the Basile black-box stage, with audience on three sides, as well as projected starscapes. The props are few but beautiful, including a very functional large desk and Henrietta’s period-appropriate hearing aid. Performances are superb, especially Schlatter expressing Henrietta’s passions and regrets, and Mathias showing Margaret’s tested but true sisterly love. Garner entertainingly transforms from dour to power as a budding feminist. Jennewien is ever the kind mother figure. Tran doesn’t allow his performance to slide into buffoonery, but he is definitely not the smartest “man” in the room.

This sweet drama explores the personal cost of ambition, as well as the struggle to overcome systems set against you. As Henrietta herself says in the play, “Life is about getting appropriately upset.”

Learn about and celebrate the woman who “measured the universe.” Note that the Phoenix is now at 705 N. Illinois St., and curtain times on this stage are 7:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m. Sundays, a half-hour off the mainstage times. For info and tickets visit www.summitperformanceindy.com or www.phoenixtheatre.org.