Science can be a tough sell on stage. Sure, everybody loves a good demonstration how pressurized carbon dioxide impacts Pop Rocks. But get into the theoretical realms of self-replicating chromosomal deoxyribonucleic acid and you’re in a different laboratory altogether. That’s the lab at the center of “Photograph 51,” Anna Ziegler’s 90-minute dive into the groundbreaking work of Dr. Rosalind Franklin.
When: Through Feb. 17
Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis
Tickets: $50 – $74
Directed by Vanessa Stalling, “Photograph 51” doesn’t rely on pyrotechnics, verbal or otherwise. Nobody does so much as light a Bunsen burner. The six-member ensemble doesn’t need flashiness to light up the petri dish of a scientific community working at London’s King’s College in the early 1950s.
It’s been almost 70 years since Franklin (Chaon Cross) worked with X-ray pictures (“X-ray crystallography”) at King’s. Her work — specifically photograph 51 — brought James Watson (Alex Goodrich) and Francis Crick (Nicholas Harazin) to their famed discovery of the double-helix DNA barber-pole that contains the blueprint for every living being on earth. Watson and Crick got a Nobel for their work unveiling the code that determines whether we’re homo-sapiens or houseplants. Franklin got largely forgotten.
“Photograph 51” is a memory play, the action unfurling as the principal players recall them. Like all memories, those relayed by Ziegler’s characters aren’t always trustworthy: They conflict, distort and fade. While the scientific facts are irrefutable, the narratives surrounding the discovery of those facts is far slipperier. Stalling’s direction heightens the contrast between the two, making “Photograph 51” a compelling portrait of scientists as well as of science itself.
Ziegler makes the genetics and the X-ray crystallography understandable and dramatic. You’ll never feel like you’re stuck in a lecture hall. You will get a basic understanding of the high-stakes, high-level science at play. Still, it’s the interpersonal dynamics among scientists that’s the main attraction here.
Franklin is dismissed from the start. Arriving at King’s for a fellowship, she’s informed she’ll be an assistant to Dr. Maurice Wilkins (Nathan Hosner). She also learns that women with doctorates are never called “doctor” at King’s. Franklin is always “Miss Franklin” or “Rosy,” a diminutive nickname she hates.
Watson loudly derides her for not smiling enough, not wearing lipstick and not making more of an effort to look pretty. (He makes similar statements in his memoir.) Doctoral student Don Caspar (Yousof Sultani) tells Franklin to send him her published articles so he can finish his degree.
The attitudes of Franklin’s colleagues are reinforced by the overarching policies of King’s College, and for that matter, the world beyond it. At Harvard, it’s noted, women are not allowed in the physics building. At King’s, they are prohibited from dining in the “senior commons,” a place where scientific collaboration is as important as eating. The early 1950s setting should make “Photograph 51” a period piece. It’s not. In Court’s program notes, women enrolled in STEM fields at the University of Chicago spend two pages discussing the sexism they’ve encountered on campus and in their field.
Cross embodies Franklin’s perseverance with a granite-like certainty. She won’t be distracted. She literally elbows the men out of the way when necessary. Not even the noisy arrogance of Goodrich’s loathsome Watson can undercut her focus or determination.
Hosner’s Wilkins isn’t quite as gleefully sexist as Watson. Yet for a man with a supposedly brilliant mind, Wilkins is extraordinarily dim in some respects. When Franklin doesn’t blush with gratitude at a gift of chocolates, Wilkins looks like he’s just encountered a fish on a bicycle — something that makes absolutely no sense. He cannot comprehend the reality of a woman who doesn’t soften and smile when presented with an unsolicited gift, one from him. Such complete cluelessness would be funny if it wasn’t so annoying.
Even with lab assistant Ray Gosling (Gabriel Ruiz, providing much of the play’s humor with his hapless sincerity) acting as a middle man, Wilkins still can’t comprehend why “Rosy” won’t be nicer. He never actually tells her to smile in so many words. The underlying demand is constant and obvious nonetheless.
The combined forces of Arnel Sancianco’s set design, Keith Parham’s lighting design and Paul Deziel’s projections are both understated and, once you start paying attention to them, spectacular. The set’s spiraling stairways form a double helix. Intricate, ladder-like projections of code flicker in the background. Patterned light turns the floor into a sea of molecules, and calls back to Franklin’s childhood love of drawing “the tiniest repeating structures.”
You don’t need to a doctorate to appreciate the beauty of those patterns, or the impact of Franklin groundbreaking work. Or to wonder what story would have played out, had she worked on an even playing field.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.