PHOTOGRAPH 51 is a bio-drama based on the life of Rosalind Franklin, a British biophysicist and crystallographer. Many think she should have been a Noble prize-recipient, but her standoffish personality, perfectionism, and some seemingly unethical actions by others, as well as the possibility of gender discrimination against her, got in the way.
Franklin, who was born into an affluent and influential British Jewish family, was responsible for making critical contributions to the understanding of the double helix, thus defining the molecular structures of DNA, RNA and viruses. Her brilliant career was brought to a close when she died at age 37 of ovarian cancer.
Anna Ziegler’s script was not developed in a traditional manner. The play, which was presented at the 2011 World Science Festival in New York, was originally developed by The Ensemble Studio Theatre under the sponsorship of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science and Technology Project. Yes, a play developed with the aid of an organization which is noted for sponsoring scientific achievement, not the arts.
Franklin’s tale is complex and shows a smart woman, operating in a field dominated by men. It highlights the 1953 era when Franklin and several male scientists are on the verge of discovering what they called, “the secret of life—the DNA double helix.”
We observe Franklin both trying and avoiding forming any type of relationship, professional or personal. We watch her struggle with her being concise, impatient, and directly confrontational, which irritates and unnerves her male co-workers.
We observe her being ahead of the pack in discovery, but not writing the needed journal articles or the building of models, which eventually leads to her ideas being usurped and published by Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins. This resulted in the trio winning the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine.
Supposedly, Franklin was omitted from Nobel recognition because she had died, and the deceased are not allowed to receive the award. In reality, she had been eliminated from consideration when the trio “stole” her work, tweaked the findings, and published it without noting her contributions.
The Actors’ Summit production is exceptionally well done. The one-hundred-ten minute play, under the focused direction of Neil Thackaberry, moves swiftly. The script is strong and, in spite the fact that this is a “talk” rather than an action play, the production grabs and holds attention. The acting is generally of a high level.
Sally Groth inhabits the role of Rosalind. We are caught up in her inner anguish, her obsessive personality, her struggle to move beyond her lack of social graces. This is a woman on a mission, but makes some tactical decisions that deny her deserved fame.
Keith Stevens creates in Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind’s supposed research partner, a clear person who has a love/hate relationship with her. Kenneth Leep is outstanding as Don Casper, the American who admires Rosalind’s work and has romantic feelings toward her, which she rejects. Zach Griffin is wonderful as Ray Gosling, Rosalind’s put-upon assistant, who provides some comic relief.
Capsule judgement: PHOTOGRAPH 51 is a well written script which gets a very strong production. The play is a must see for anyone who wants to be exposed to what, for most, will be a venture into the complex world of science that is presented in a meaningful way, by a cast that makes the lesson fascinating.
For tickets to PHOTOGRAPH 51, which runs through February 2, call 330-374-7568 or go to www.actorssummit.org