Story: Rosalind Franklin already has built a reputation for her work in X-ray crystallography, a new technique in which X-rays diffracted through molecules are used to record photographic images. In 1942 she takes a research position with the British Coal Utilization Research Association, earning a Ph.D. while studying the structure of coal.
She later becomes an accomplished X-ray crystallographer while employed in Paris at the Laboratoire Central des Service Chimiques de l’Etat before joining King’s College London as a research associate in 1951 at age 30. There she works with Dr. Maurice Wilkins in an attempt to solve the mystery of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the “building block of life” found in the nucleus of cells. Graduate student Ray Gosling assists them.
DNA, the “Holy Grail” of science, is studied by research teams both in England and the United States. At the University of Cambridge, mere miles from King’s College, scientists Francis Crick and James Watson pursue their own theories about DNA.
In contrast to the methodical, scrupulously careful Franklin, they’re in a hurry for fame and fortune and make a bold prediction about DNA after Watson attends one of Franklin’s lectures: It’s a triple-helix structure. It isn’t, and they go back to the drawing boards, temporarily less cocky.
Under Franklin’s direction, Gosling laboriously takes countless photographs of DNA using the X-ray crystallography process. One of those pictures, known as Photograph 51, reveals a double-helix structure. While Franklin meticulously goes about documentation and further research, Wilkins shows “friendly competitors” Crick and Watson the amazing photo. On February 28, 1953 the Cambridge collaborators announce “their” discovery, influenced in no small way by Franklin’s efforts.
In 1962, Crick, Watson and Wilkins are awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work in cracking the DNA code. Since the Nobel Committee has a tradition of not making posthumous nominations, the late Dr. Franklin (who died in 1958), is not included. Some mysteries of life are explained while others remain unsolved.
Highlights: Based on true events, Anna Ziegler’s one-act drama, Photograph 51, is a riveting and amazing story told in superior style in the curent production impeccably directed by Ellie Schwetye at West End Players Guild.
Other Info: Franklin’s fascinating story, largely unknown to most people, is powerfully told through Ziegler’s taut, lean prose. The 2015 premiere in London’s West End garnered an Olivier Award nomination for Nicole Kidman as well as winning some awards for her performance.
This local professional premiere features standout performances by Schwetye’s expert cast of players, each of whom shines in her/his own finely tuned interpretation of historical figures. Schwetye’s direction is especially telling when Nicole Angeli as Franklin takes center stage, while the men in the cast lurk in the background, arms crossed disapprovingly for the most part.
Not completely, though, as the two younger characters, Gosling and American scientist Don Caspar, acknowledge the importance of Franklin’s discoveries.
Ryan Lawson-Maeske turns in an ingratiating performance as the amiable and agreeable Gosling, who “knows his limitations” and is happy to play the dutiful servant in Franklin’s landmark research. Alex Fyles shows the intelligence as well as compassion of American student Caspar, who eventually befriends the socially awkward Franklin while respecting and admiring her achievements.
Angeli impressively depicts the steady self-confidence and penetrating brilliance of Franklin as the work’s pivotal character, nearly impervious to all but the most blatant social signs, especially those of the unambitious Wilkins. She is annoyed at being referred to as “Miss Franklin” and not her doctoral status, while Wilkins clearly makes it known that he has Ph.D. credentials. Primarily she goes about her task in relentless, workaholic fashion, with only occasional if revealing glimpses into her personal background.
As the downbeat Wilkins, Ben Ritchie almost disappears when in the presence of Angeli’s determined Franklin, unable to reach her both professionally and personally, subtly underscoring Wilkins’ forlorn demeanor. He’s easy prey, as a result, for the conniving Crick and Watson.
John Wolbers and Will Bonfiglio shape Crick and Watson respectively as calculating, cunning competitors, at once friendly with Wilkins and intensely interested in what Franklin’s research is uncovering while also looking for every opportunity to take the upper hand and steal the coveted, approaching thunder. Wolbers’ Crick is snooty, sophisticated and arrogant, while Bonfiglio paints American Watson as opportunistic and out to prove he’s no Indiana hayseed.
Kristin Cassidy’s cramped, cluttered and cozy set underlines the dingy, dark confines of the research lab where Franklin, Wilkins and Gosling toil, filled with all sorts of her lab props. Elizabeth Lund’s lighting captures the essence of the atmosphere for the lonely, painstaking research, while Schwetye’s subtle sound design is filled with melancholy, plaintive chords. Tracy Newcomb’s costumes carefully match the personality of each character.
The real Photo 51 showed the now-famous double-helix structure of DNA. Ziegler’s Photograph 51 is a fascinating and complex portrayal of the double helix of science and emotions which wraps around each of its well-etched characters in this virtually flawless production.
Play: Photograph 51
Group: West End Players Guild
Venue: Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Blvd.
Dates: April 11, 12, 13, 14
Tickets: $20-$25; contact 367-0025 or brownpapertickets.com
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb