man and woman in embraceRALEIGH, NC – Students skipped and wandered around NC State University, buzzing with excitement, wonder, and pride last weekend. On the heels of the NCAA Final Four games and Dreamville Music Festival, Raleigh opened its arms to guests and natives alike. However, the theatre community has managed to escape the campus’ 2024 madness, with University Theatre‘s current production of Ada and the Engine traveling audiences back to 1830…even before there was basketball.

Directed by Mia Self and performed in Titmus Theatre in Frank Thompson Hall, Ada and the Engine was written in 2015 by the popular American playwright Lauren Gunderson. Before entering the theater, audiences pass a glass showcase of historical artifacts relating to the story’s heroine, Ada Byron Lovelace (often called the first computer programmer), including her clothes, postcards from the 1800s, and paintings portraying Ada at work. The artifacts were presented in collaboration with the Gregg Museum of Art & Design, also located on NC State’s campus. This was a nice touch and allowed me to remember that this story was nonfiction, and the characters being portrayed were once living the life being dramatized.

Immediately upon entering the performance space and walking to my seat (note: all seats are general admission), I was transported to another world, not yet knowing what that world would be. Once the show started, I understood perfectly that the set would establish the tone – very whimsical and mechanical. Before the show began, mechanical typing noises filled the space, with a solar cycle painted onto the walls and stage floor. The set painting is stunning and was simply hard to look away from. The stage is decorated with an innovative pulley system, weighed down by books. The pulley system was a creative choice, but using it to differentiate between the three different settings of the play was confusing. A small change in set pieces and props would have made a world of difference to clarify locations for the audience.

The play opens on Ada (Chloe Dexter) and her mother, Lady Byron (Kira Lee Britt), arguing over Ada’s latest obsession with reading her late father’s (Lord Byron) poetry. Byron, the famous poet of the 19th-century English Romantic period, was known for his scandalous romantic private life, leading young 18-year-old Ada to question her worth within her own romantic relationships. We quickly meet all of our key players, including Charles Babbage (Brayden Spencer Hearn) and Lord Lovelace (Solomon Hill).

The language of the script matches the 1800s costuming: the women are dressed in regal, long, and patterned dresses with accompanying hairstyles of braids and curls. The dresses themselves are pretty and seemingly period accurate, but Dexter’s wig for Ada was large and did not suit her face well, which quickly became a distraction during the show. Contrastingly, Lady Byron’s hair was neatly braided atop the crown of her head and suited her character, the time period, and the stage design well.

The ensemble, made up of six dancers, resembled an engine, all working together to tell the mysterious story of Ada Lovelace. The ensemble acted as parts of what we soon would know to be Charles Babbage’s invention, “the engine” (a primitive computer-calculator machine), only entering the stage when props needed to be moved or the pulley system needed to be manipulated. Self’s clever choice to use the dancers/ensemble as the engine made sense, but the stage felt too crowded at times when all six dancers transitioned scenes.

Under the influence of her mother, Ada must attend her debut, find a husband, and “not talk about maths.” Dexter’s portrayal of a young, eager, and quick mind brought young Ada to life and made the audience fall in love with her, rooting for her happiness along the way. After some time, Ada complies with the idea of marrying Lord Lovelace, refusing to admit her growing love for Charles, whom she met at what the audience can assume was an engineering conference of sorts. Hill’s portrayal of the high Lord, attempting to follow societal expectations was done well, with great moments of comedic timing. 

As Babbage promises to keep Ada informed of his new engine invention, the two begin to write to each other and keep a growing friendship via written mail. Self’s use of the stage’s space and lighting choices were effective in telling this part of the story and pushing the timeline forward as two or more characters were exchanging letters. 

Time is seemingly passing as Ada writes that she is bearing children and satisfied with her marriage to Lord Lovelace. Yet, something seems to unsettle her. She misses Babbage, is eager to discuss maths and the engine, and convinces him to come visit her new home. Here, the timeline got confusing; it was clear time was passing, but at what speed, I had no idea. One moment Ada was 18 years old, and the next she was suddenly 35 with multiple children, but we only knew that because it was directly stated in the dialogue. There were no set changes or costume changes to help move the years along, which could have helped to clarify the rapid progression.

As Babbage and Ada continue to meet to discuss the engine and its possibilities for the future, even the idea of the engine generating music, the two start to fall in love. Unfortunately, there was less chemistry between Dexter and Hearn, which made it hard to root for Ada to leave Lovelace for Babbage, which I was desperately trying to find in the threads of the budding relationship. This second act sped by suddenly, and without much warning to the audience, Ada fell ill and became bedridden.

What became of Babbage’s invention and Ada’s ideas? I won’t spoil the ending for you, as we met quite an interesting new character within the last ten minutes who stole the show. This character was a wonderful surprise and brought fresh energy to Ada’s impending doom during the second act. The transition into the last few minutes was tastefully done, with the ensemble utilizing the pulley system in the way that I was yearning for the entire time, and music and light completely transforming the space. 

One of the themes I wish was more present was music. Throughout the show, Ada shares with Babbage that, in theory, the engine could make music, and unfortunately, she never sees her idea come to light before she falls ill. Music was only played during transitions, and I wished it had been more incorporated.

Ada And The Engine is a mysterious, whimsical, and lovely story about women in science, and the faces behind our most beloved and used pieces of machinery today. The story was meant to be a romance, but I only took the two scientists as friends. There is no implication as to whether or not the real-life Babbage and Ada had an affair, but audience members can assume that the likelihood was high. Britt and Hearn gave two standout performances. They completely embodied their characters from the moment they were introduced and took us on their personal journeys of self-love and perseverance. 

Prior to attending the show, Ada Lovelace was not a name I knew. Now, I leave with a greater understanding of science and an appreciation for the eager minds of women where society usually does not place them. 

Ada and The Engine continues through Sunday, April 14.