The theme for Theater J’s recently announced 2011-2012 season,“Brilliant Fictions/Shattering Facts”, could also apply to its current production of Photograph 51, Anna Ziegler’s fascinating drama of scientist Rosalind Franklin’s role in the race to decipher the DNA molecule, an accomlishment that made James Watson & Francis Crick household names.
Franklin is now famous as a feminist martyr for her role in DNA research, not for her more accomplished work in other fields. According to the ideological version of her story, she was mistreated by other scientists because of her gender and her lack of romantic interest in her credit-stealing colleague, Maurice Wilkins. As a result of that fact and her death from cancer at the age of 37 in 1958, Franklin was denied adequate credit for her work, which was the essential foundation for the fame and 1962 Nobel Prizes awarded to Watson & Crick and Wilkins.
Fortunately, playwright Anna Ziegler treads a mostly sure-footed middle ground between the ideological version of the story and the more prosaic historical one.
Photograph 51 is set during Franklin’s tenure at Kings College in London from 1951-53 when she used her expertise in x-ray diffraction to take pictures of genetic structures.
Franklin (Elizabeth Rich) gets off to a rocky start when she arrives in London to begin a research fellowship. Not only is she denied the independent authority promised her, but she is instructed by Maurice Wilkins (Clinton Brandhagen) to change her research focus to the structure of DNA.
Franklin’s unwillingness to cooperate with her colleagues in the male-dominated lab eventually leads Wilkins to share Franklin’s work (including one particularly famous and beautiful photograph) with his professional friends, Cambridge scientists Francis Crick (Michael Glenn) and his young fellow researcher James Watson (James Flanagan). Aided by the eponymous “Photograph 51,” these two win the race to describe the double helix structure of the DNA molecule, which the characters refer to as “the secret of life.”
Ziegler reveals Franklin as an intelligent and complicated woman who was far better at scientific research than human relationships. The playwright is aided by Elizabeth Rich’s finely nuanced portrayal of a mostly unsentimental scientist who never understood the importance of getting along to get ahead.
Rich’s wonderful central performance is supported by a fine ensemble cast. Clinton Brandhagen capably handles a difficult job role as the officious and conflicted Wilkins. The remainder of the cast, including Alexander Strain as lab assistant Ray Gosling and Tim Getman as a poetic younger scientist whose admiration of Franklin begins with correspondence, do a fine job handling the wry and witty humor that infuses the work. James Flanagan in particular gives an effective comedic portrayal of the energetic and awkward young Watson, who was only 24 at the time of the discovery.
Director Daniella Topol adeptly controls the pace of the piece, giving it an air of suspense while nicely balancing the character interplays. She handles the ending scenes with great sensitivity, when the playwright makes a late nod to the emotional costs of the intense scientific focus. She also does a fine job handling the interwoven narration from the characters who occasionally speak directly to the audience. It is a mostly useful device that keeps the play moving while explaining the science to the audience, only occasionally feeling awkward or didactic.
The production also benefits from a nicely understated set from Giorgos Tsappas. It is spare and angular, focusing on the competing scientific worlds.
Turning from the drama to the history, the playwright freely admits that Photograph 51 is a work of fiction and that she has “altered timelines, fact and events, and recreated characters for dramatic purposes.” Based upon my research, some of the more interesting facts that might have diminished the dramatic impact of the work include:
- While Franklin photographed DNA (using a sample provided to her by Wilkins), she had already left both King’s College and DNA research behind to study viruses prior to Watson & Crick’s creation of their double helix DNA model.
- Watson’s account of seeing Franklin’s photograph in his gossipy 1968 memoir “The Double Helix” (whose general accuracy was challenged by Crick, Wilkins, and others) is considered by some to reflect more delight in his strategem than the actual importance of the photograph.
- Even if Watson & Crick had never seen Franklin’s photograph, the team headed by Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling was only weeks behind in their research and Franklin herself was a couple of major steps from a DNA model.
- While the play implies that Franklin was wrongfully denied adequate credit for her work, she never felt that way during her lifetime and she actually stayed for some weeks at Crick’s home in 1957 during a medical convalescence.
- Both Wilkins and Franklin were credited in a footnote to Watson & Crick’s famous paper, but even if Franklin’s contributions to DNA research were thought worthy of Nobel consideration, she was ineligible because the Nobel committee does not give posthumous awards.
Yet the omission or downplaying of these considerations can be excused given the playwright’s disclaimer, the intelligence and skillfulness of her writing, the general balance of the story, and the very fact that the work is interesting enough to inspire additional research. The production’s program not only provides fuller background about Rosalind Franklin, but also cites additional resources for those who are intrigued by the story.
In Photograph 51, Watson & Crick speculate about how a future Nobel Prize might change their lives and advance their careers. Let’s hope that this prize-winning play (it won the 2008 STAGE International Script Competition for plays that deal with science) helps advance the career of its promising playwright Anna Ziegler.
Written by Anna Ziegler
Directed by Daniella Topol
Produced by Theatre J
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
Running time: 1 hr 30 min with no intermission