nytheatre.com review by Victoria Linchong
November 1, 2010
In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick published in the scientific journal Nature their hypothesis of the double-helix model of DNA. Arguably one of the most important discoveries in the entire history of science, they received the Nobel Prize in 1962 with the biologist Maurice Wilkins. Six years later in The Double Helix, an intimate first-person account of the discovery, Watson scandalized the scientific world by revealing that he and Crick were only able to deduce the double helix by appropriating the research of a little-known female biophysicist, Rosalind Franklin, who had died of ovarian cancer ten years previously at the age of 37, possibly as a result of the radiation in her lab.
Just who is this Rosalind Franklin? The mysterious "dark lady of DNA," she haunts the annals of history, alternately lauded as a doomed feminist icon and disparaged as a mediocre theorist and a harpy who hoarded her data. Anna Ziegler's Photograph 51 weighs the circumstances of Franklin's controversial life, while presenting a portrait of a highly gifted woman inhibited by the sexism of her time.
The play is alternately set in the early 1950s and an existential plane where Watson, Crick, and Wilkins, along with Ray Gosling and Don Caspar, who both assisted Franklin in her work, debate her life and legacy beginning with the fractious first meeting between Franklin and Wilkins. Hired by J.T. Randall to analyze proteins through X-ray diffraction at Kings College in London, Franklin is surprised to learn when she arrives that she has been reassigned to work on DNA. Furthermore, Wilkins had expected her to be his assistant, while she thought she was to head her own department. Whether Randall was to blame for this misunderstanding, or whether one of them had jumped to a self-serving assumption, the resulting friction sours the possibility of their collaboration and becomes a continual source of dismay for Wilkins, who ineptly attempts to gain Franklin's friendship through gifts and misplaced gallantry that only exacerbate their tense relationship.
Meanwhile in Cambridge, the young American biologist James Watson teams up with the physicist Francis Crick to crack the secret of life. The two begin to put together DNA models, deducing as they go, an approach that Franklin scorns, preferring to gather as much data as possible before coming to any conclusions. When Linus Pauling in California reveals that he too is making his own DNA models, a race ensues that Franklin refuses to run, stubbornly continuing to photograph X-rays of her DNA samples. Her tenacity yields a startling image—the titular Photograph 51—clearly revealing the helix shape of DNA. To her assistant Gosling's dismay, however, Franklin refuses to seize the moment. She puts the photograph away. In the ensuing chain of events, history is made and Franklin becomes a footnote in the scientific discovery of the century, only to be credited a decade after her death in a book that also excoriates her for being a frump who might be interesting if she "took off her glasses and did something novel with her hair."
Bringing history to life is never easy and Anna Ziegler does an excellent job of balancing biographical material with theatrical conjecture. The meticulous production features a sleek laboratory set by Nick Francone, precise period garb by Suzanne Chesney and crisp lighting courtesy of Les Dickert that perfectly evokes a brisk English day. Astutely directed by Linsay Firman, the talented cast includes a standout Haskell King as a superbly acid James Watson who seems to have taken his character's advice and done something novel to his hair. Perhaps the only flaw in this otherwise beautifully executed production is that the prim Kristen Bush never thaws in the role of Franklin. In her possible romance with Caspar at the end of the play and in the missed opportunity for Wilkins to bond with her over Shakespeare, it is the wistfulness and remorse of the men that is more sympathetic. Franklin died without knowing that Gosling had taken Photograph 51 and given it to Wilkins, who in turn showed it to Watson. In Ziegler's provocative play, they grapple with the injustice that they facilitated, searching for a reconciliation that can never be attained.