by Anna Ziegler
Directed by Mary Resing
Produced by Active Cultures Theatre
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
DNA. The combination of those three letters conjures up tales of science, double helixes, and countless CSI episodes. The intriguing story of Photograph 51 is its exploration of how relationships may have played a role in the breakthrough discovery of the structure of DNA. Now, of course, that infamous double helix is so well-known, even a caveman, well, never mind. Suffice it to say that understanding the molecular structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) was tantamount to unlocking the secret of life.
This taut little thriller highlights a scientist whose meticulous research formed the basis of the discovery, but who was essentially ignored and forgotten amidst the international recognition and awards, including the coveted Nobel Prize. Every once and awhile, one hears that a woman scientist was involved, whose work and ideas were usurped, packaged, and submitted by the infamous duo Watson and Crick as totally their own. Photograph 51 bares all by showing what happened among the dedicated scientists, inadvertently or otherwise, in the quest for knowledge, answers, and meaning.
The rather cryptic and strange title refers to the 51st x-ray photo that Rosalind Franklin took as part of her meticulous research. It was apparently this particular shot that shed enough light on the subject to explain the inexplicable formation, helped the scientists grasp the molecular formation enough to make a model, and gave birth to the rock stars of genetic discovery. Who was this hard working woman behind the scenes? Why didn’t she get the credit that she deserved? What’s the big deal of the helix? Why does it matter? Well, just that it sheds light on the molecular structure of all living matter on the planet. That’s all. Photograph 51 adds to the intrigue by zeroing in on the characters, showing their intentions, complex motivations, and regrets.
Anna Ziegler’s compelling script explores the personality quirks of the two main characters and experiments with what could have happened under different circumstances. Using creative interior dialog, characters bounce between the past and present with ease, deal with life’s dilemmas, alternate between loneliness and aloneness, and work with ferocious intensity, like so many in this metro area, all very accessible, understandable, and real.
The casting is just as effective with special nods to the leads, Jewel Greenberg as the ultra precise, sometimes prickly Dr. Rosalind Franklin so dedicated to her work that she eats, sleeps and breathes the stuff, spouting quips like, “I don’t do jokes, I do science.” Definitely not the warm and fuzzy type. Greenberg gives Franklin a far away appeal, always thinking steps ahead of her nearest colleague, Wilkins, while being barred from the “men only” senior banquet hall for supper. Ziegler uses this slight as a crucial touchstone that shadows her relationship with Wilkins from the very beginning. In a clever move she even returns to it as a reprise at the end, in a fantasy of how things could have turned out so differently if only…
The other scientists are also extremely well cast. Francisco Reinoso is the stumbling, bumbling colleague Wilkins, who is as baffled by her resistance and affronts as he is unaware of his own limited charm-appeal. Evan Crump and Jack Fitzmorris portray Crick and Watson as young, breezy and excited. The script shows how their relationship as friends may have contributed as significantly to their accomplishments as any of the technical science. Christopher Buchanan also delivers some nice reactions and entendres as Franklin’s lab assistant who ends up being a confidant, trusted ally and friend.
Design elements all work together beautifully in this unassuming space. No detail is spared, even the floor is shaped like a hexagon and the small staircase platform is molecular shaped, pyramid style. Set design by Marie-Audrey Desy. The lighting and sound by Cory Ryan Frank and Ian Armstrong are well accomplished in this sparse warehouse space. A zapping sound emits when the special x-ray machine is engaged. And when the significance of photograph 51 comes to light, the hushed tones and blue-ray shadows relay the breathtaking impact of its contents.
The real winning combination in the production is the paring of the writer and director, with special appreciation to dramaturg Jacqueline Lawton. All the directing choices work for the unusual 3-sided space with lots of props that must be orchestrated just right, the timing must be impeccable for each scene to work. It does and they do.
What Ziegler has accomplished with this fast-paced and highly accomplished script must be seen to be appreciated. She juggles an amazing number of issues and handles them effectively in layers, whether its clashing personalities, yearning for companionship and acceptance, deeply rooted self-esteem issues, or fear of failure. Ziegler has a steady hand and a sure heart in covering all the bases without glossing over the basic (hard) science. As director, Mary Resing is with her of one mind, like recombinant DNA, sharing a keen appreciation of the basic themes of patterns and shapes. At one point the ensemble gathers on the stairs in a stop-frame tableaux with Rosalind downstage, back to the audience, forming a sort of human crystal. Very effective.
Only in its second year, this is the second of three works commissioned by Active Cultures. The next production Mad Breed is a romantic comedy about the family of John Wilkes Booth and premieres in May. Once again, it looks like another great selection, just perfect for the interests of the WDC metro area. This is one new theater that has a solid mission, purpose, and will hopefully be around to unfold more mysteries about life, love, our bodies and ourselves.
Running Time: 1:30 with no intermission
When: Thru March 2, Friday and Saturday at 7:30, and Saturday & Sunday at 4pm.
Where: Joe’s Emporium, (new warehouse) 3309 Bunker Hill Road in Mount Ranier, Maryland
Call: 800-494-8497 or consult the website.