Theater Review: “Photograph 51” — Woman of Science

By David Greenham

A revival of Anna Ziegler’s absorbing and enlightening study of the brilliant British biophysicist Dr. Rosalind Franklin.

Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler. Directed by Rebecca Bradshaw. Scenic design by Kristin Loeffler.  Costume design by Chelsea Kerl. Lighting design by Aja M. Jackson. Sound design by Elizabeth Cahill. Properties coordinated by Aurelia Lyman. Staged by The Nora Theatre Company, Central Square Theater, Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA, through April 14.

Stacy Fischer and Josh Gluck in the Nora Theatre Company production of “Photograph 51.” Photo: Maggie Hall

I’m neither a scientist, nor a woman, but one of my favorite things that the Nora Theater Company presents is the Brit d’Abreloff Women in Science Production Series. This year’s offering is a reboot for the troupe, a revival of Anna Ziegler’s absorbing and enlightening Photograph 51. You may never have heard of the brilliant British biophysicist Dr. Rosalind Franklin — I certainly hadn’t prior to seeing this show. The production will make you want to want to learn a lot more about her.

Ziegler’s study of a visionary scientist pushed to the margins begins in Paris in 1950, when Franklin (Stacy Fischer) receives a three-year fellowship at King’s College in London. She believes she has been hired to lead a lab studying proteins and lipids; instead, she is told she will be studying DNA structure as the assistant of Dr. Maurice Wilkins (Barlow Adamson). It is the first of several direct (and indirect) insults for Franklin. The pair get off to a rocky start. Franklin’s resolute focus on her work quickly infuriates — but also enchants — Wilkins. He maintains his quintessentially British stiff upper lip, but her dedication renders him vulnerable, helpless to generate camaraderie. Unable to soften her iron will, he proposes a do-over — men need to feel comfortable, right? With a sly smirk, she agrees to try again from the beginning, but adds, “I look forward to dispensing with these games.” Eventually, she tells him the blunt truth: “I didn’t come here to be friends.” In light of the #metoo movements, these exchanges between Franklin and Wilkins take on an ironic freshness.

However, along with issues of sexism and injustice, Photograph 51 is out to dramatize an important episode in the history of science — and Ziegler wants to share it all. Scientific inquiry elbows dramatic tension aside and, with help from Franklin’s graduate assistant Raymond Gosling (Josh Gluck), the narration becomes increasingly technical. Gosling introduces us to biophysicist Francis Crick (John Tracey) and American molecular biologist James Watson (Michael Underhill), the rivals of Franklin and Wilkins from the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge.

Franklin’s determination to refine photographic tools to the point that they will capture the structure of genes is admirable, but her insistence on being exacting is her undoing in the world of scientific realpolitik. Her hypothesis is that DNA strands have a helix shape. But Franklin won’t make a public announcement until she has proof in a perfect photograph. Wilkins can’t wait. And once he makes the ideas public — without giving due credit to his colleague Franklin, who did all the work — Crick and Watson, the perfect opportunists, pounce, taking the concept and running with it — all the way to the Nobel Prize, as it turns out.

At the same time, news of Franklin’s project reaches a young American doctoral candidate Donald Casper (Jesse Hinson). The persistent student writes her to offer assistance. Her initial reluctance is overcome with the help of Gosling, who eventually becomes Casper’s long-distance ally. Casper’s arrival gives the dramatist an opportunity to scrape off some of Franklin’s veneer of tough and — unfortunately necessary — defensiveness. The episode highlights Photograph 51‘s weakness as a stage script. The absorbing story contains excitement and surprises. But, unfortunately, the chronicles of science brush the personal stories aside. At times you feel as if you are watching a historical documentary rather than a drama.

Stacy Fischer’s Franklin is fierce and focused. She makes the most of the precious few moments when he character’s shields are down. Barlow Adamson’s Wilkins is complicated and contradictory. He’s the chief culprit here, yet he elicits feelings of empathy along the way. It’s a well-crafted performance. Jesse Hinson’s Casper is charming; the performer does a lot with little. Although his role is diminished in the final third of the play, Josh Gluck’s Gosling makes for a quietly earnest cheerleader for Franklin, a defender as the men of science close in and stifle her voice.

Less successful are the turns by John Tracey as Click, and Michael Underhill as Watson. Perhaps it’s Ziegler’s writing, or it might have been Rebecca Bradshaw’s direction, but too often the pair came off like a science geek’s vision of Laurel and Hardy. Neither actor went beyond the cartoon premise; these are over-confident bad guys. Their bluster adds little of value, especially in the second half of the play.

Director Bradshaw worked hard to overcome the challenges of the Central Square Theater’s seating arrangement. The audience is split in two, with the sides facing each other. The action of the play takes place on a landing strip of a stage in between them. So much scientific information is being slung that the audience struggles to understand both the story and the intellectual context. Nuggets of history are tossed from one half of the audience to the other. Bradshaw even places characters on steps by audience members — an attempt to create a sense of intimacy. But it doesn’t work.

Chelsea Kerl’s costumes and Aja M. Jackson’s lighting evoke the spirit of the era. Krisin Loeffler’s set is effective, particularly the amazing set dressing, which features props procured by Aurelia Lyman. But the set-up might well have hindered Bradshaw’s direction: the industrial metal stairs and levels felt too large. The space resembles a factory rather than a lab. Slide projections might have created the necessary context — without taking away the space needed to mount an intense drama about a brilliant woman’s struggles with her colleagues and herself.

Elizabeth Cahill’s bold, but overly intrusive, sound design backfires. Conceptually, it’s a clever idea to bring contemporary sounds with a strong female message into the piece. But too often the aural strong-arming overwhelmed the action, much in the same way that five strong-willed male characters eventually silenced the lone female character.

The paradox is that Photograph 51 does not give us a full enough picture of Franklin, who is fascinating enough to absorb all of our attention. Instead, we get a little too much of everything else.

David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.

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