"Photograph 51" Blurs the Portrait of a Great Scientist
These days architectural firms that specialize in state-of-the-art scientific labs don’t put tiny, dark offices in the basements of buildings. They consciously create collaboration spaces throughout the structure — gathering spots where researchers are likely to bump into each other and interact informally.
And while these buildings are undoubtedly more comfortable to work in than Rosalind Franklin’s damp, subterranean office at King’s College, as described in the play “Photograph 51,” currently onstage at Renaissance Theaterworks, today’s labs aren’t just designed to be more hospitable for scientists. By encouraging collaboration among researchers, these work spaces actually speed up the pace of discovery. It turns out more great minds working on a problem are much better — and faster — than one.
The undeniable value of scientific collaboration is one of many themes addressed in Anna Ziegler’s poetic but imperfect play, “Photograph 51.” It recounts the career of Rosalind Franklin, (portrayed by a strong, stunning and complex Cassandra Bissell) an expert in X-ray crystallography whose work in the 1950s contributed directly to discovery DNA’s structure as a double helix. Building on her research, three other scientists won the Nobel Prize in 1962: James Watson (a cocky and crude American prodigy played with relish by Nick Narcisi); Francis Crick (the mild-mannered, terribly English researcher, Trevor Rees) and Maurice Wilkins (a member of the old boys club who is utterly puzzled by women, Neil Brookshire).
In real life, not only was the importance of Franklin’s research downplayed for decades, but in Watson’s autobiographical account of the discovery, he paints Franklin as an anti-social, miserable shrew and admits his team used her photographs and papers without her permission.
The play attempts to not only give Franklin the credit she deserves, which the scientific community has done consistently since the early 1980s, but to place the other scientists’ dislike of her in its historical context of rampant sexism and residual anti-Semitism in the years after World War II. It also offers audiences a look inside Franklin’s mind, theorizing about why she was, or was perceived to be, extremely difficult to work with. Interestingly, the play’s author stated in an interview that she found Franklin’s own personal quirks — her mistrust of her colleagues, her disarmingly straightforward speech, and her strong preference to work alone — both fascinating and tragic, since they probably ultimately impeded her own scientific discoveries.
The production, directed by Renaissance Theaterworks’ Artistic Director Suzan Fete, is successful on a lot of levels — and most successful when plumbing the depths of Franklin’s inner life. Through many monologues Bissell lovingly relates key moments when patterns and shapes in the natural world — leaves, mountains, molecules — fascinated and beguiled the budding scientist, driving her desire to look even more deeply inside “life itself.”
With clipped, no nonsense speech and crisp, repetitive movements, she creates a genius researcher and mathematician who is unceremonious, clear and direct, with a strict work ethic and absolute unwillingness to let others speak for her. Shadows of her softer side flicker when Franklin is corresponding with an American graduate student (a charming Joe Picchetti). A smile climbs up to her face when they are able to share — primarily through letters — the wonder and awe that accompany her scientific findings. These subtle gestures, paired with the natural frustrations of being patronized by the male establishment and stymied in her research, create the complicated person that Franklin may have been — and certainly a more human portrait than the one painted previously by Watson.
But when “Photograph 51” widens its focus to show Franklin’s colleagues and the world or her scientific inquiry at King’s College, the play becomes blurry. The male actors do their best with the material, but the only well-developed, three-dimensional character in the play is Franklin. The others range from sexist and rude to conservative and boorish. Josh Krause’s PhD student is a bumbling assistant, but even his character is confined to one nervous, tenuous note.
The flat characters are stuck, side-by-side for the majority of the play, confined to a tiny part of the stage by a lovely but very large laboratory/office set (scenic design by Sarah E. Ross) and Fete’s incredibly static blocking. They are also stuck in a story without much urgency, and while Narcisi’s Watson reminds the other characters frequently that they have to hurry up their research so their lab can publish first, it fails to infuse the story with any energy.
Part of the overall blurriness is also due to an unwieldy framing device — the five men in the cast offer competing impressions of Franklin and different versions of the events around the discovery of the double helix, talking to each other in a disputed present, and complaining about the necessity of recounting the story again. They step in and out of realistic scenes and each provide both narration and commentary on the events, but it’s not until the end of the play that the audience has any idea why these guys are arguing. Since they each take turns pleasantly talking directly to the audience, it’s hard to know whose side to take or what’s being accomplished in the re-telling.
As if the visual wasn’t difficult enough — five male actors and only one actress employed to dramatize the story of the erasure of a woman’s accomplishments from history books — having the men fight for control of her narrative in the play that is supposed to liberate it, is hard to take. And the author’s choice to have not one, but two of these men fall in love with Franklin, offering her emotional fulfillment where academic success eluded her, is insulting.
Wilkins’s final wish that he and Franklin could have worked together, like two people watching the same play and talking about it afterwards, feels like the end of a male-centered fairytale, undercutting Franklin once again.