Editors' pick

Photograph 51


Editorial Review

Theater review: ‘Photograph 51’ at Theater J

By Nelson Pressley
Monday, April 4, 2011

In the early 1950s, Rosalind Franklin was in the thick of a race for a Nobel Prize, but in “Photograph 51,” Anna Ziegler’s zippy history play at Theater J, Franklin didn’t much know or care. The frosty Franklin keeps her face to her microscope and does much of the key work uncovering the structure of DNA, while cannier men grab the glory.

Melodrama? You bet, and a good one. Franklin, deliciously snippy in Elizabeth Rich’s clipped, focused performance, is the clear intellectual hero: She is the purest, most genuinely curious scientist. The men, a casual bunch next to the burning, all-business Franklin, tend to be various strains of pig — ambitious, sexist, anti-Semitic, etc.

Yet Ziegler smartly roughs up this outline, blurring the edges enough to keep these historical personalities interesting. Franklin’s no saint: She’s hell in the hyper-competitive British academic workplace, intimidating and defensive about every semantic and substantive slight. Her superior, Maurice Wilkins, is smug and entitled, but he’s practically knocked woozy by Franklin’s constant lashings. The reflections that gradually color the play deal with the eternal human mystery of why people act as they do — the very stuff of drama, of course, and a far less solvable riddle than that of the DNA structure these characters stalk.

Ziegler has a good deal of fun with her scenario, ladling plenty of punch lines into laboratory broth. Alexander Strain, as a graduate assistant caught in a lot of crossfire, shows excellent timing with the hapless glances and deadpan lines Ziegler provides. And Ziegler practically makes a comic duo of James Watson and Francis Crick, the hotshot Yank and twee Brit who sniff out secrets from the Wilkins-Franklin camp as they tiptoe toward the limelight.

Daniella Topol’s staging is as brisk and knowing as the 90-minute (no intermission) script. Giorgos Tsappas’s austere set has an antiseptic look, with a narrowing focus that cleverly puts the characters under a metaphorical microscope. This design also dramatically frames the famous photograph of the title, the one Franklin made confirming the DNA double helix.

Franklin did not get her name on the Nobel that Wilkins, Watson and Crick shared four years after she died in 1958, which is reason enough for Ziegler to get the men squabbling over her history. Should they feel guilty, or was the outcome inevitable? The frictions are steadily entertaining, in part because Topol has cast the play extremely well: The acting is intelligent and light, and the play feels like it’s constantly on the move.

Clinton Brandhagen is particularly deft as Wilkins, finding an appealingly soft center in a role that might have come off as hopelessly priggish. Tim Getman, as an American scientist in thrall to Franklin, brings a thread of poetic longing into the mix, and with his mustache, big glasses and sweater, he looks especially of the 1950s (the costumes are by Ivania Stack).

James Flanagan relishes the unflappable obnoxiousness of Watson, Michael Glenn has a quiet bumbling quality as Crick, and Rich is near-heroic as the monastic Franklin. The show is probably too much fun to be strictly accurate history, but while Ziegler clearly did plenty of homework, she frankly declares that “Photograph 51” is a work of fiction. That is very much how it plays — not that you don’t believe what Ziegler is showing you, but that you do.

By Anna Ziegler. Directed by Daniella Topol. About 90 minutes. Lights, Daniel Covey; sound design/original music, Veronika Vorel.

DNA pioneer Rosalind Franklin finally in the spotlight
By Mark Jenkins
March 18, 2011

Three names are widely associated with the discovery of DNA's structure: James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, who shared a 1962 Nobel Prize for the breakthrough. But it was Rosalind Franklin, a lesser-known contributor to early DNA research, who actually made the X-ray diffraction photo that offered the first glimpse of the double helix.

And it is Franklin who is the central figure in the new play "Photograph 51" at Theater J.

Franklin died of ovarian cancer in 1958 at age 37. That made her ineligible for the Nobel, which is not awarded posthumously. Playwright Anna Ziegler's "Photograph 51" suggests that the Jewish Briton (played by Elizabeth Rich) was shortchanged even before her death. Wilkins publicly took credit for her work, which heightened the suspicion she already felt toward him.

"She doesn't really trust the environment she's in," says director Daniella Topol. "It's a very male-dominated environment. A non-Jewish environment. In many ways, she's the minority. So her feeling of power is limited."

To the director, one of the drama's principal questions is "What do you do in situations where you don't feel empowered? Franklin isolated herself to hold onto her power."

Topol, a Washington native who lives in New York, specializes in new plays. "I collaborate with writers all the time, so I have a long-standing relationship with the playwright," she says. "[Ziegler] first asked me to do a reading of this play about a year and a half ago, in New York. I just found myself completely intrigued by the world and the scope of the piece. The science of it is fascinating to me."

Intricately structured and quickly paced, "Photograph 51" keeps its six characters on the move, in space and time. Events are recounted in the historical moment yet also considered in retrospect; the actors mostly speak to one another, but sometimes directly to the audience.

"I love the way Anna tells the story," Topol says. "It's really fluid. It's really choral. It's really theatrical."

In one scene, Wilkins gives Franklin chocolates, as if that could mend their testy relationship. "Wilkins's character constantly wants to start over," Topol notes. "I think the idea of restarting relates to post-World War II life. Now all the scientists are focused on the science of life, as opposed to the science of death. And DNA is the start of life. So how can you restart something? And can you keep it as pure as it is at the beginning?"

"Photograph 51" has been well received by scientists - including Watson - but many of the issues it raises are universal, chief among them the tension between cooperation and self-interest.

The world of postwar British research labs, Topol says, is "not unlike theater, to be honest. It's collaborative, and competitive. You need everybody to make a show. But certain people stand out, and certain people will get awards."