Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51 raises intriguing questions about ethics, sexism and anti-Semitism in the scientific world.
The drama, now playing at Actors’ Summit in Akron, is set in 1950s London, where groundbreaking female scientist Rosalind Franklin discovered the double helix structure of DNA. This play about the scientific race starts out with an eerie feeling as five men in suits look broodingly out to the audience, one lone woman looking somber among them. They are standing on a series of steps, ramps and a platform that are shaped like an “X,’’ evoking the double helix.
Photograph 51, directed by Neil Thackaberry, takes awhile to warm up as the play’s male scientists look back at the conflict they experienced working with the outspoken, abrasive Franklin at King’s College.
The story begins in 1951, when biophysicist Franklin arrives at the King’s College lab. It becomes fascinating as Franklin begins her work, with actress Sally Groth painting a picture of a singularly focused, distrustful, defensive and solitary woman.
Franklin, an expert in X-ray crystallography, makes it clear she will not be anyone’s assistant and that she trusts no one to analyze her data as she works to discover the molecular structure of DNA.
In this play, Groth’s Franklin is engrossed in the work itself rather than winning a race to build a model revealing the secrets of DNA. The men in a competing lab in Cambridge, though, focus on the race.
Franklin often stayed up all night in her lab working to unravel the structure of DNA. Rather than rushing to publish or to build an inaccurate model of DNA, she wanted to make sure all of her calculations were perfect. In 1952, she took the famous X-ray diffraction image Photograph 51, which clearly captured the double helix structures of DNA’s molecules.
Groth’s Franklin shows very little softness, but we see glimpses when her character speaks on the phone with her mother or considers a relationship with an admirer, young scientist Don Caspar (Kenneth Leep).
Keith Stevens creates a complex character in Franklin’s boss, Maurice Wilkins, who is initially repelled by this strong woman but becomes more drawn to her the more she shuts him out of her work. Their initial meeting is telling as Wilkins insults Franklin for being both a woman and Jewish. He presents an interesting foil to Franklin because he ultimately is just as lonely as she is.
Zach Griffin creates humor and keeps the story going along as he narrates the experiences of Ray Gosling, Franklin’s lab assistant. Benjamin Gregg, playing the unscrupulous, flip American scientist James Watson, creates a demeanor that’s too modern and too casual for the 1950s.
In this drama, Franklin is disrespected and betrayed by male colleagues who steal her work on DNA, including breakthrough Photograph 51, her exacting calculations and her unpublished paper. As a result, competitors Watson and Arthur Crick (Arthur Chu) as well as her own boss, Wilkins, received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1962 for their discovery of DNA’s structure. They gave Franklin, who had passed away four years earlier, no credit.
Photograph 51 condenses the drama surrounding Franklin’s work, making it appear that Franklin died of ovarian cancer soon after the scientists stole her work and took credit for it. In reality, she led other pioneering work on the tobacco mosaic virus and polio virus at Birkbeck College before she passed away at age 37.
Playwright Ziegler nicely elicits a sense of mourning for this brilliant young woman who changed the world but went before her time. Franklin didn’t receive credit for her scientific breakthrough and was unable to complete her life’s work. But as the character says near the end of the play, “The world won, didn’t it?’’
Ultimately, the way Franklin was manipulated and cheated by the male scientists in her life was not just a scientific tragedy — it was a human tragedy. The play leaves viewers with a key final question: Did any of the male scientists who misused Franklin truly have any regrets?
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or email@example.com.