Photograph 51: A Middling Play About Two Scientists Who Lost the DNA Race
How do you make a story about two people who failed to discover a major scientific phenomenon—in this case, the DNA double helix—interesting? Moreover, how do you make it interesting if their failure is attributed to their overly cool, methodical, and formal relationship with the project and with each other?
Where’s the drama in distance?
Photograph 51’s answer: Move things around. Playwright Anna Ziegler rearranges events and romantic relationships to create more tension between the real-life scientists Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins. To create more tension on the stage, director Braden Abraham has his actors rearrange furniture. (Now we’re in this lab! Now we’re in that lab! Now we’re the drawing room!) All that rearranging comes to middling results.
Franklin and Wilkins worked together at King’s College London, just a train ride away from and a few steps behind James Watson and Francis Crick in the race to discover the structure of DNA. But Franklin was a woman and, according to the play and some historians, the sexism at King’s alienated her—she wasn’t allowed in the clubby dining room with the male scientists and, in the play at least, her research “partner” addresses her as “Miss Franklin” while she addresses him as “Dr. Wilkins.” Photograph 51 argues that Franklin’s icy relationship with Wilkins, plus her obsessively slow and methodical working style, are the reason she and Wilkins lost the race. (Plus, Francis and Crick used—some say swiped—her data to build their famous model.)
With her tight lips, crisp walk, and cipher-flat expression, actor Kirsten Potter portrays Franklin as a disciplined hermit crab who uses a cold carapace as a survival mechanism in a sexist world—but Potter allows her face a few quick smiles, a few moments of softened eyes, to give us a glimpse of the warmth within. Bradford Farwell, as her colleague Wilkins, is chummy in an old-boy’s-club way, but fundamentally insensitive, and sputters when he can’t understand why she doesn’t like him more. (Toward its end, the play also posits that he’s secretly in love with her, to add the tiniest dash of spice.) Watson (Benjamin Harris) and Crick (MJ Sieber) are pompous buffoons, mostly used for comic relief and commentary on the play itself, like the two cackling old critics in the balcony of The Muppet Show.
The production’s most dynamic—and satisfying—relationship is between Franklin and her lab assistant Ray Gosling (Brian Earp). Because she’s his senior and doesn’t have to fight for his respect, she can relax; he’s a sincere, sweet guy who genuinely respects her. It helps that Earp has a boyishly charming stage presence—his direct-address monologues to the audience are warm and winning.
As a whole, the production is like a middling meal at a middle-upper-class restaurant. A little bland, perhaps a little overcooked, but in no way disastrous. Still, nothing quite sings. It’s just okay.