Everybody loves a good romance story. Love is one of the universals present in human storytelling from its beginning, and it is sure to remain a staple until we are gone. Of course, love’s accessibility has also led to a vast number of uninteresting, melodramatic, unbelievable romances. Love stories are capable of being the best stories humans can tell, or the worst.
One thing that makes for a good love story is coming up with new matches. We’ve seen the servant girl and the prince fall in love a few too many times. The bad boy and the innocent girl determined to help him? Old hat. Even stories with LGBTQ+ characters, who are desperately in need of representation, are often reduced to boring tropes of romance.
But there’s one love story that hasn’t been told nearly enough: the one between mankind and mathematics. This is the kind of love story offered by Stage West’s Ada and the Engine, showing through Feb. 9.
The human half of this love story is Ada Byron Lovelace (Kelsey Milbourn), based on the pioneer of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). From the start of the play, there are two forces pulling Ada: her love of mathematics, and her infatuation with the father she never knew. Ada was the daughter of Lord Byron, and the only child the poet had with wife Annabelle (Megan Haratine), before leaving them both shortly after Ada’s birth. Byron’s propensity for uncouth behavior has stained Ada’s reputation without her having done a thing. She is treated with the constant fear that she will turn out like her father.
The dynamic between Ada and her controlling, fearful mother is almost like the dynamic between Luke Skywalker and Yoda: Ada must constantly be wary of following her father to the dark side. Except Annabelle Byron’s wisdom isn’t inspirational, only disheartening. And Lord Byron wasn’t taking over the galaxy but pursuing his romantic passions and his poetry — albeit at the expense of family.
And yet, Ada is tempted by the same pursuit. Her passion isn’t for the scoundrels and harlots of the world, as her father's seemed to be. Hers is mathematics. At a party, where Ada is supposed to be finding a suitable husband, she instead turns to the middle-aged mathematician Charles Babbage (Steven Pounders). With him she rambles with delightful passion about mathematics, establishing Charles’ opinion of her as a brilliant young woman and potential correspondent. Their partnership was influential even in the technological advancement seen today. Babbage is credited with inventing the first computing devices; this play shows how instrumental Ada was to his work.
Soon after meeting Charles, Ada is — against her instincts — pushed into a courtship with Lord Lovelace (Garret Storms), who is as good a man as Victorian England was capable of offering. Although he believes that a wife should be a feature of domesticity and fidelity, he is nonetheless devoted to Ada and cognizant of her brilliance. Throughout the play, he bends more and more to her early feminist thinking.
The play traverses months and years in an effective epistolary fashion: the characters dictate letters to each other as they dance across the stage. Although Ada dances with Lovelace, she writes to Charles, establishing a triangle between them that persists with taut edges till the end of the play.
But for Ada, the meaning of this triangle is truly mathematical. Throughout a life of domesticity, her love of mathematics never ceases, and it’s this factor that ties her again and again to Charles. The two are working on an analytic engine that could perform calculations beyond man’s capacity. While Charles gets caught up in the politics of such a machine, Ada remains focused on its power and its beauty. This leads, naturally, to a tension between the two mathematicians.
The play flirts with reducing itself to a romantic melodrama. Director Emily Scott Banks prevents such a dilution, homing in consistently on mathematics. Lovelace and Charles both seem very much in love with Ada for much of the play, and although she sometimes seems to love them back, she remains ever faithful to mathematics, capable like no other of perceiving the beauty and music captured in the strange metallic world of zeroes and ones.
Of course, it’s difficult to portray an effective love story when one half of the romance is an abstract science that confuses and bores most people. To do so requires strong acting, and as Ada, Milbourn brings it all. With eloquence, wit and charm, she convinces even the most stalwart algebra-haters that math is magnificent; she also delivers philosophical and sociological commentary with satisfying poise and quickness. It’s Ada’s social as well as scientific acuity that make her such an admirable character — a daughter any parent would be proud of.
And indeed, Ada gets the chance to gain her father’s pride when the play takes a quick jaunt to the afterlife. The detour would come off as tacky if it didn’t allow for such rich conversation between Lord Byron and his even cleverer daughter. Garret Storms plays both Lord Lovelace and Lord Byron, a casting that might blur the lines between husband and father if the actor weren’t so capable of transforming from one character to the other (with the help of a headscarf). Lovelace is a good if rather bland character, a complete contrast to Ada’s fire. Byron, on the other hand, matches his daughter’s vitality and wit, as can only be expected.
The play establishes from the beginning that Lord Byron is a bad man, and that Ada had better not end up like him. But as Ada explores the poetry in mathematics with utter passion — a passion burning at the same degree as her father’s — she convinces the audience that it’s possible to carry on the good traits of one's ancestry and forget the bad.
This is a play about love, yes, but it’s also a play about proving that you are more than others think you to be. Ada is more than a wife to be domesticated, more than a brilliant mind to be taken advantage of, more than the sins of her father. And because of her, this play is more than just a love story.
Ada and the Engine runs through Feb. 9 on Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8, and Sundays at 3, at Stage West Theatre, 821/823 W. Vickery Blvd., Fort Worth. Tickets are available online and at the box office.