Once this awful cold snap breaks (because let’s be honest, we’re all hibernating until then), there’s a show on the south side that’s worth seeking out: Photograph 51 is a play by Anna Ziegler about a scientist all but forgotten to history, despite her contributions to the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure. The production debuted in London in 2015, with none other than Nicole Kidman in the starring role as Dr. Rosalind Franklin. Now at Court Theatre and directed by Vanessa Stalling, this iteration stars Chaon Cross as Franklin, a woman who knew even as a girl that she’d be a scientist, and whose perfectionist work ethic might have cost her a legacy that instead belongs to two gents named Watson and Crick.
They’re the names middle-schoolers learn in Biology 1, after all: the men who, in 1953, correctly theorized that the structure of that life-building molecule was a double helix and won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery just over a decade later. They shared that prize with Maurice Wilkins (Nathan Hosner), a fellow scientist working with Franklin at King’s College, while Watson (Alex Goodrich) and Crick (Nicholas Harazin) toiled away on at Oxford. Franklin is notably absent from the award, and Ziegler’s tight, impressive drama weaves emotion, tension and context into the events leading up to that world-changing discovery and Franklin’s role in it.
The small cast (where Cross is not accidentally the only woman) is rounded out by Ray Gosling (Gabriel Ruiz), Franklin’s doctoral student and lab assistant; and Don Caspar (Yousof Sultani), an American PhD student who corresponds with Franklin on her work before meeting her in England. These six players easily fill the stage, built out as a mid-century science lab replete with clunky machinery, corded phones and piles and piles of books and documents, for a production that often breaks the fourth wall to be sure we’re keeping up with events. They unfold fast once the show establishes its baselines: that Franklin is always on the defensive (from experience, one can be sure); that Wilkins is eager to work with her but doesn’t know how to break through her tough exterior; that Watson and Crick are playing a bit fast and loose with the scientific method, willing to take leaps where Franklin will do no such thing.
Cross is the vibrant center of the show (as she should be), and though the first third hits as a shade heavy-handed, it’s all in good faith to help build towards Franklin’s eventual breakthrough, the sheer elation of it and the ways it would ultimately get away from her. The discovery is that of the show’s title, a photograph that depicts with certainty that DNA is structured as a double helix. As an X-ray crystallographer (yep, that’s a thing), Franklin was, in her day, the best scientist doing the work of photographing and deciphering DNA molecules. Without her work, Watson and Crick would not have been able to put together the pieces of their model of DNA (pun intended).
Of the men surrounding her, these two are the most sinister, if that’s the sentiment that can be associated with their blind ambition to “win the race” of the search for the shape of life. Ziegler injects some of the blatant sexism Watson would go on to acknowledge in his much-maligned memoir, reminding us of the inherent inequality in Franklin’s field. Their white, male confidence practically seeps off of them; wherever Franklin hesitates, insisting that all her work be beyond scrutiny, they barge ahead, unburdened by such particulars. Wilkins and Gosling are at least on her side throughout, even if they too don’t know quite what to make of her. Ruiz, as a bit of a bumbling student hoping to learn what he can from Franklin, nails a bit of comic relief in moments that desperately need a bit of levity. And even as Wilkins inadvertently betrays Franklin’s confidence around her discovery, it’s nevertheless clear he’s come to respect her deeply, as a woman but—perhaps more importantly—as a scientist as well.
It all begs the biggest question of Franklin’s life: what if? What if she’d had the confidence of Watson and Crick? What if Wilkins had been able to be the collaborator she needed? What if, what if, what if? As Franklin learns her fate in the years following the momentous publication of Watson and Crick’s discovery, the shame of it all—a life cut short, a brilliant mind forgotten—comes into stark relief. In the final moments, the cast assembles on stage to wonder along with us what might’ve been different if Franklin’s own DNA had built her differently. Though the story at the center of Photograph 51 is that of one woman’s obstacles to equality both professional and personal, it ultimately speaks to anyone who’s ever faced seemingly insurmountable resistance to their own advancement.
Photograph 51 has been extended through February 23 at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. Tickets range from $50 to $74 and are available, along with a full performance schedule, here.
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