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.

Not an easy road for family in IRT drama

By John Lyle Belden

It’s a story many can relate to: A family takes a road-trip to another state to visit a grandparent, in part to give the teenage son a chance, away from neighborhood distractions, to think about where his life is going. Little sister tattles when one brother pokes another. Younger brother has his favorite song played over and over and over. So, it’s a family comedy, right?

“The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963” (based on the book by Christopher Paul Curtis, adapted by Cheryl L. West) adds a more serious context: an African-American family’s journey into the Jim Crow South.

At the Indiana Repertory Theatre through March 1 (effectively throughout Black History Month), parents Daniel and Wilona (Bryant Bentley and Tiffany Gilliam) travel with misbehaving teen Byron (Brian Wilson), five-year-old daughter Joey (Dalia Yoder), and nine-year-old Kenny (Xavier Adams) — through whose eyes we see the story — from their home in Flint, Michigan, to Birmingham, Alabama, and the home of Grandma Sands (Milicent Wright). 

Though the family is fictional, the world they live in was all too real, and not that long ago. The Watsons carry the Green Book, a reference of places safe for black travelers to stop. They dare not go to just any gas station or motel — like a white family — and the idea of just driving until you are tired is foolhardy and dangerous, as the Watsons discover. Even the police, who should be there to protect them, are potential predators. At Grandma’s house they are safe, but they know venturing out at all carries risk. Still, nothing has prepared them for when one of the most tragic incidents of the Civil Rights Era rocks the family to its core.

Bentley plays a dad who is likeable and practical, and a little stubborn; for him, family is everything. Gilliam’s Wilona clings to her better memories of the Alabama she grew up in, her one blind spot for a mom otherwise prudent and cautious. The three youths excellently act “their age,” the boys showing some growth as the events affect them. Yoder’s Joey stays perpetually innocent, always charmingly standing up for whichever sibling is in trouble at the moment. Wright, a familiar face on IRT stages, is a welcome presence, effortlessly commanding. The cast also includes Grayson Molin in two starkly contrasting roles — as Buphead, Byron’s white best friend; and later as an unfriendly native Alabamian. 

Directed by Mikael Burke, with excellent visual effects by Reuben Lucas, the play is a study of contrasts, especially between the familial humor of the road trip and the moments of horror. Current events add the irony that Flint, a struggling, literally toxic place now, was in the ‘60s a thriving city and comforting home base for the Watsons. But they return there changed, and Kenny nearly broken. Find out how, why — and experience the terror of the “Wool-Pooh.”

“The Watsons Go to Birmingham” in one movie-length act on the IRT Upperstage, 140 W. Washington (near Circle Centre) in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com