Rosalind Franklin, eminent mid-century scientist and heroine of Photograph 51, is driven by The Work.
It’s a phrase she utters several times throughout the quasi-biographical play, delivered with a gravity that suggests capital letters. Franklin’s capital-W Work was X-ray crystallography, the data collection process (and subsequent analysis) that allowed scientists in 1953 to discern the molecular structure of DNA — and, more importantly, postulate its replicating function.
If you remember back to high school biology, you might better recall the names Watson and Crick than Rosalind Franklin. (“Textbook publishers will call to make sure they have the correct spelling of our names,” the character James Watson correctly predicts just before the play’s climactic scene.)
Thus, the seed of a narrative sprouts.
Photograph 51, a 90-minute play by Anna Ziegler, tells the story of the race to discover the structure of DNA. It might sound like tedious subject matter for a stage production — and in fact the “race” was all but unacknowledged by its major participant, the aforementioned Franklin, whose fastidious approach to science left no room for chasing glory — but after seeing the Renaissance Theaterworks production of Photograph 51, you’ll wonder why “science biopic” isn’t a more popular narrative genre.
The play, like the X-ray image that supplies its title, takes several overlapping shapes: scenes blur into one another, characters appear both in-scene and in the wings as narrators, interlocutors and self-editing pen pals. James Watson and Francis Crick even form a Greek chorus of sorts at first, commenting and spectating before their characters join the fray. The sparse set punches above its weight through the production’s clever staging and use of lighting, which ushers characters from scene to scene in seamless parade.
Though Franklin, played assiduously by the commanding and strong-voiced Cassandra Bissell, is the only female cast member, she remains the play’s nucleus, around whom all five male characters bustle. The contested narration that functions as exposition in the play’s opening moments (“It was a particularly cold winter in London, January 1951,” says Maurice Wilkins. And, “Not again, Wilkins. Really?” from James Watson) was not something I’d seen done before: a group of men discussing the motivations and professional movements of a woman. If there’s a reverse Bechdel test, this play would fail — which is a good thing, in light of Renaissance Theaterworks’ mission to improve gender parity in the theater world.
Director Suzan Fete coaxes a nuanced taxonomy of masculinity from each of the supporting stars. Particularly delightful is Nick Narcisi’s James Watson, somehow equally believable and utterly villainous without verging on caricature (a level of restraint evident to those familiar with the real James Watson). Josh Krause is charming as Franklin’s graduate assistant Ray Gosling, toggling between comic relief and omniscient narrator.
Francis Crick and Don Caspar (Franklin’s collaborator and would-be love interest) are portrayed with subtlety by Trevor Rees and Joe Picchetti, respectively, but it is Neil Brookshire as Maurice Wilkins who has the toughest of the five male roles. Wilkins, Franklin’s labmate and sparring partner, gets a special note in the script from Ziegler, who entreats the actor to be “neither too awkward nor too condescending.” Photograph 51, and in fact, the real story behind the DNA race, shines in gray areas, and Brookshire strikes a balance that brings Wilkins to life and invites the audience to interrogate the “data” the way Franklin might have.
Bissell’s Franklin dispenses with the notion of likable in the first half (her character is described in the script as “a Jewish British scientist in her 30s, doesn’t suffer fools”), indicting the audience’s own deep-seated sexism. Yet Franklin’s humanity is in good hands with the thoughtful actress, who displayed her dedicated familiarity with the real Rosalind Franklin during the post-show talkback session. Even as her character’s vulnerabilities are brought forth, Bissell maintains her brusqueness and scientific scruples, refusing to sacrifice character for character development.
Franklin’s devotion to The Work is mirrored in the craft and dexterity of the Renaissance Theaterworks cast and crew, who avoid easy answers where they can’t be empirically proven.
At its heart, Photograph 51 is a character study set against a true-life scientific arms race. Franklin died tragically at the age of 37 from ovarian cancer, never knowing the names Watson, Crick and Wilkins would appear on the Nobel Prize for discoveries made using her data. Though the play fudges some timelines for the sake of narrative, the prize win is not dramatized as climax — our focus is instead brought to the wisdom and philosophical dedication of Franklin in her last days. “Lost? No…We all won,” she says. “The world won, didn’t it?”
Go See It: Renaissance Theaterworks presents Photograph 51 in the Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center (158 N. Broadway); Jan. 18-Feb. 10