'Photograph 51' clarifies female scientist's role in discovering DNA

Rosalind Franklin is not exactly a household name. Yet, the determined British scientist and expert in X-ray crystallography created the image (known as Photograph 51) critical to the discovery of DNA’s structure. She died at age 38 of ovarian cancer, and her contribution was seemingly swept aside by the time James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins received the 1962 Nobel Prize for discovering DNA’s double helix. 

In a densely packed 90 minutes, Anna Ziegler’s “Photograph 51,” directed by Braden Abraham and currently enjoying its Northwest premiere at the Seattle Rep, attempts to right this historic oversight of Franklin.

Ziegler freely admits that “Photograph 51” is a work of fiction rather than strict biography, and that she has tinkered with the chronology of events and inferred/imagined personal relationships. 

But the difficulties encountered by Franklin as a woman working in the old-boy scientific world of Cambridge of the early 1950s are no doubt authentic enough. Ziegler structures her play such that the audience views Franklin through the eyes of her male colleagues, who sit on the sidelines enjoying drinks at the gentlemen’s clubs that Franklin is forbidden to enter while Franklin works in increasing isolation at the lab.

Kirsten Potter portrays Franklin as tightly controlled, reserved, waspish — believably a product of the hostile environment in which she operates. But Potter really shines in those moments when Franklin lets down her guard and reveals her delight in Shakespeare or hiking, or her yearning for a more well-rounded life; emotions play across Potter’s face like a brief glimpse of sunlight on a cloudy day. 

Bradford Farwell’s multifaceted portrayal of Franklin’s Cambridge colleague Maurice Wilkins teeters on the edge of despicability, yet Farwell skillfully creates the sense that a decent fellow lurks beneath the ultra-conventional product of his time. 

Benjamin Harris and M.J. Sieber as the ambitious and somewhat despicable villains of the piece, Watson and Crick, provide fodder for feminist hatred, as well as comic relief with their snobbery and limited vision. Harris is especially entertaining as the American wunderkind Watson, whose ego is as towering as his hairstyle.

Rounding out the excellent cast are Aaron Blakely as almost too-good-to-be-true American graduate student and Franklin admirer Don Caspar, and Brian Earp as fawning lab assistant Ray Gosling, whose foot-in-mouth comments provide much-needed comic moments.

Scott Bradley sets Franklin and Wilkin’s lab at center stage, surrounded on each side by minimalist sets subtly transformed by L.B. Morse’s lighting into the clubs, homes and offices frequented by the male scientists.

“Photograph 51” plays through March 10 at Seattle Repertory Theatre. For more information, visit www.seattlerep.org. To comment on this story, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.

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