Since 1999, Essential Theatre has been committed to doing at least one new play by a Georgia playwright every year. They have thus given birth to a playwriting award competition and the annual Essential Theatre Play Festival, which continues through the month.
This year the winner is G.M. Lupo’s “Another Mother,” and it is running in repertory through Aug. 27 with another play, Lauren Gunderson’s “Ada and the Memory Engine.”
Ms. Gunderson is already a two-time winner of Essential’s Playwriting Award, but she is more than that. The Decatur-raised, Emory University-nurtured (now based in San Francisco) Ms. Gunderson has been dubbed by American Theatre Magazine as the most produced living American playwright in 2016. She has been quite prolific, won many awards, and we shall call her a legitimate homegrown superstar.
I saw her lovely work “Silent Sky” at Theatrical Outfit in 2015, and we could easily make this review a study of her work and happily sing her praises. But another playwright said, “The play’s the thing”; so we turn our attention to “Ada and the Memory Engine,” directed by Ellen McQueen.
Ms. Gunderson is especially interested in real women who have lived and have been fascinated with the relationship between art and science. So we have Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), a British mathematician and writer, known especially for her work on Charles Babbage’s proposed general-purpose computer, called the analytical machine.
Ada (Ashley Anderson) was the first to recognize that the machine had applications beyond mere calculation, and she created an algorithm intended for the machine. A mathematical genius, she is often regarded as the first to recognize the potential of a “computing machine,” and is therefore called the mother of the algorithm and also the first computer programmer.
But the plot thickens. Ada’s father was none other than the British poet and literary legend Lord Byron, who married Anabella Milbanke, thus becoming Lady Anabella Byron (Holly Stevenson), Ada’s mother. To say their marriage was a mismatch is putting it mildly. Anabella was naive, unworldly, intellectual (Ada inherited her math prowess from her), priggish, and prudish. She is also, in the play, domineering and quite unpleasant.
After only one year their marriage ended, and Ada never knew her father. He died when she was eight years old. Anabella remained bitter toward Lord Byron and promoted Ada’s interest in math and logic, in an effort to keep her from developing the “insanity” of a poet. Anabella made allegations about Byron’s immoral behavior throughout her life, her vitriol making her appear a bit insane herself.
Of course, you may recall that Lord Byron, whatever his faults and excesses, was regarded as extraordinarily handsome with a way with women (and some men); even Coleridge remarked, “So beautiful a countenance,” referring to Byron. One suspects that Lady Anabella, despite her protestations, was furious at losing the dream man of his age as her bed partner—although she would have been boiled in oil before admitting that.
But the young Ada is no fool; she’s fascinated by the legend and talent of her famous father and doubtlessly inherited some of his passion and imagination in her mathematical quests. That combination interests playwright Gunderson quite a lot. But Ada’s mother is very upset to discover her reciting “She Walks in Beauty” and forbids it.
Ada marries Lord Lovelace (Brandon Partrick), but her true partnership is with her mathematical
soul mate Charles Babbage (Mark Cosby, in a fine, spirited performance). Speaking of good actors, this play is blessed with them. There is also Kathleen McManus’s Mary Sommerville and a mysterious “Man” (Evan Alex Cole) I can’t tell you about.
But the real find for this viewer is Ashley Anderson, heretofore unknown to me, although I hear she has appeared at the Shakespeare Tavern. But you won’t learn anything from her cryptic program biography. Her fiery, rebellious, irrepressible Ada is a delight; you can’t take your eyes off her. She reminds me a bit of a young Holly Hunter, but with more precise diction (not trying to slam Ms. Hunter, a huge talent and I’m a fan). I’m tempted to say a star is born (oh dear, I just did). I shall follow her career with much interest.
But she isn’t alone: Ms. Stevenson is deliciously stuffy and obnoxious as Ada’s mother. Mr. Cosby’s Babbage is quirky, fun, and energetic. Mr. Partrick is also quite fine.
The play might sound a bit stuffy and intellectual; it’s not. Both the actors and the work of a finished playwright (although I think she’s still growing) prevent that. This is the most polished work I’ve yet seen at Essential Theatre; Artistic Director Peter Hardy should be quite proud he’s nourished the illustrious Ms. Gunderson; he’s also made the Festival an important event on Atlanta’s theatre calendar. Be sure to consult the web site for the entire schedule. “Ada” could easily wind up on Masterpiece Theatre one of these days.
For tickets and more information, visit essentialtheatre.com.