Review: “Photograph 51”

Nathan Hosner and Chaon Cross (Photo by Michael Brosilow)


Where: Court Theatre,
5535 S. Ellis Ave.
When: through Feb. 23
Tickets: $50-$74
Phone: 773-753-4472

Theater Critic

Anna Ziegler’s 2008 “Photograph 51” belongs to the growing body of literature helping women reclaim their rightful place in history in general and scientific history in particular. But the 90-minute play about Rosalind Franklin, the British chemist whose discovery of the DNA double helix in the early 1950s was long unappreciated, is no simple paean.

Ziegler couples her portrait of a complicated woman in a world of sexist men with an examination of bigger “what if” questions and a memory-play format that looks at events from various, mostly male perspectives about what really happened. And in Court Theatre’s beautifully staged production, directed by Vanessa Stalling, all the strands come together as elegantly as ….the double helix captured in “photo 51,” an X-ray defraction image of crystallized DNA taken by Franklin (Chaon Cross)  and her lab assistant Ray Gosling (Gabriel Ruiz) at King’s College London.

That image, the culmination of the ambitious Franklin’s research, was used, apparently without her permission, by University of Cambridge scientists James Watson (Alex Goodrich) and Francis Crick (Nicholas Harazin) to develop a model of DNA’s double-helix form holding “the secret to life.” They, along with Franklin’s King’s College colleague, Maurice Wilkins (Nathan Hosner), went on to win the 1962 Noble Prize for their work on DNA, but Franklin, who died of ovarian cancer in 1958, was not included.

The story begins with Franklin, an expert in x-ray crystallography, arriving from Paris for a fellowship at King’s College. She believes she’ll be in charge of her own work, but Dr. Wilkins says says she’s supposed to assist him. To make matters worse, he insists on calling her “Miss” Franklin, not “Dr.” as he would if she were a man. And he decides to have lunch in the “senior commons,” which is forbidden to women and where a lot of the real collaboration takes place.

Not surprisingly, Franklin bridles at this sexism and at the anti-semitism that also emerges. Played to brusk no-nonsense perfection by Cross, she’s single-mindedly dedicated to her research and to making sure she gets the details right. Her softer side comes out only in her love for the beauty of shapes and in her mentoring, mostly by mail, of American graduate student Don Caspar (Yousof Sultani). When he gets his doctorate and comes to visit, there’s even a suggestion that their friendship could have been more, if only.

Her relationship with the stiff, stodgy Wilkins, on the other hand, never recovers from the bad beginning, even though he gradually falls in love with her and tries in his male chauvinistic way—like bringing her a box of chocolates and not understanding why she doesn’t appreciate it—to get back on the right foot. Hosner does a fine job of capturing his contradictions, confusion, and discomfort, fine enough that he’s rather poignant despite his ingrained prejudices

But, wary from the start, Franklin becomes more isolated, even secretive, and one of the biggest “what ifs” or “what might have beens” is whether she would have beaten Watson and Crick if she’d had been able to truly collaborate with someone. She even acknowledges that she recognized “photo 51” was a breakthrough but didn’t realize its full import.

On the other hand. Franklin’s worst impressions are borne out by Crick and especially Watson, whose self-aggrandizing, grossly misogynistic memoir “The Double Helix,” published a decade after her death, sparked some of the corrective later accounts and shape his character in the play. With a shock of wild hair and arrogant manner, Goodrich makes the 21-year-old Watson (who graduated from the University of Chicago, which isn’t mentioned) a real jerk. He condescends to Franklin by calling her “Rosy” and repeatedly and extensively commenting on her appearance and lack of attention to it.

Harazin’s Crick isn’t as fully drawn as Watson, nor is Sultani’s Caspar, who is there mainly to show that Franklin was capable of kindness towards a potential colleague. Ruiz’s Gosling provides much of the humor but also serves as a protective foil for her.

While the bulk of the action takes place in what’s described as a dank basement lab at King’s College, Arnel Sancianco’s scenic design, Keith Parham’s lighting, and Paul Deziel’s projections stunningly   create an environment that’s both in and out of time. A double-helix of two-story spiral staircases descends from an open-work backdrop illuminated by mathematical symbols and other shapes, from which the men not in the scene of the moment often look down on Franklin among the period oak filing cabinets and work tables. Mieka van der Ploeg’s costumes are suitably understated, as are Jeffrey Levin’s sound design and original compositions.

Franklin continues to work even after her “twin tumors” are diagnosed, and we’re left to wonder if her determination to find “the secret of life” resulted in a life well lived. The truth may never be known, but Ziegler’s play provides plenty of food for thought.