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REVIEW: "Photograph 51" - South Coast Repertory

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

"...Walking a Fine Line Between Ambition and Arrogance"

In the early 1950s, English chemist Rosalind Franklin was in the thick of a race for a Nobel Prize, but some would say she got a raw deal. Labeled the “Dark Lady of DNA” by one of her disparaging coworkers, the frosty Franklin keeps her face to the microscrope and does much of the work herself in Anna Ziegler’s zippy historical play, “Photograph 51” at South Coast Repertory, and plays a key role in uncovering the structure of DNA, while cannier men grab the glory.

In 1951, Franklin was offered a 3-year research scholarship at the public research university, King's College in London. In a supposed arrangement, Franklin was to set up and improve the X-ray crystallography unit at King's College. However, Maurice Wilkins was already using X-ray crystallography to try to solve the DNA mystery at the university. When Franklin arrived, Wilkins assumed that she was hired to be his assistant, and it became bad blood from the start. It was a relationship that never got any better.

Melodrama? You bet, and a good one. Running through March 24th on the SCR Julianne Argyros Stage, Franklin, in this deliciously snippy-clipped, focused performance by the incredible Helen Sadler, manages to animate the cold fish Franklin almost perfectly, and is the clear intellectual hero. She is the purest, most genuinely curious scientist. The men, a crafty bunch next to the burning, all-business Franklin, tend to be a mixed bag of collective power - ambitious, sexist, pretentious…perhaps even a little anti-Semitic.

But Ms. Franklin does not back down easy. In the hyper-competitive British academic workplace, Rosalind Franklin was intimidating and defensive about every semantic and substantive slight. Her superior, or "partner," Wilkins, is smug and entitled, but he’s practically knocked woozy by Franklin’s constant lashings. The reflections that gradually color the play deal with the eternal human mystery of why people act as they do — the very stuff of drama — and a far less solvable riddle than that of the DNA structure these characters stalk.

As a biophysicist and an expert in X-ray crystallography (the experimental science of determining the arrangement of atoms in crystalline solids), she made critical contributions to the understanding of the molecular structures of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), RNA (ribonucleic acid), viruses, coal, and graphite. Working primarily with a student, Ray Gosling (Riley Neldam), Franklin was able to photograph two sets of high-resolution separated images of crystallized DNA fibers. She used two different fibers of DNA, one more highly hydrated than the other. From this she deduced the basic dimensions of DNA strands, with surprising results, finding what was probably a tendrilla structure.

She presented her data at a lecture in King's College — one in which James Watson (Giovanni Adams) was in attendance from a competing lab. Watson admitted not being able to fully describe the lecture and the results to Francis Crick (Anil Margsahayam). And it was finally Wilkins who showed Watson and Crick the X-ray data, specifically Franklin's photo, confirming the 3-D structure that Watson and Crick had only theorized earlier for the structure of DNA. It was only after seeing this photo that Watson and Crick realized that DNA must have a double helical structure. The problem was that "Photo 51" was actually made by Rosalind Franklin. Her associate, Maurice Wilkins, preoccupied with preventing Franklin from getting ahead of him in her research, began to secretly copy Franklin’s work when she was absent from the lab, and he concealed these copies of her private work in his own portfolio, without her knowledge.

The photograph provided key information that was essential for developing a working model of DNA. The diffractive pattern determined the helical nature of the double helix strands (antiparallel). The outside of the DNA chain has a backbone of alternating deoxyribose and phosphate molecules, and the base pairs, the order of which provides codes for protein building and thereby inheritance, are inside the helix.

Watson and Crick's calculations from Gosling and Franklin's photography gave crucial parameters even for the size and structure of the helix. So, in 1953, both Wilkins and Franklin ended up publishing analogous papers on their X-ray data in the same "Nature" issue with Watson and Crick's paper on the structure of DNA.

Unfortunately, although her works on coal and viruses were appreciated in her lifetime, her contributions to the discovery of the structure of DNA were largely recognized posthumously. Franklin's image of the DNA molecule was key to deciphering its structure, but only Watson, Crick, and Wilkins received the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their work. James Watson, by his own admission, was "a birdwatcher" with no training in chemistry. Franklin died of ovarian cancer in 1958 in London, four years before Watson, Crick, and Wilkins received the Nobel.

In very much an ensemble effort, the entire cast deserves high praise for splendid thesp ian skills. George Ketsios is particularly deft as Wilkins, finding an appealingly soft center in a role that might have come off as hopelessly sanctimonious. Mr. Ketsios presented a powerfully effectual character in which the ambiance of the play was set. Josh Odsess-Rubin as the American scientist, Don Caspar, in thrall to Franklin, brings a thread of poetic longing into the mix, and nullified tensions between Franklin and Wilkins with their slight and somewhat intangible relationship.

Giovanni Adams relishes the unflappable obnoxiousness of Watson, and boosts the energy level substantially. Anil Margsahayam has a quiet bumbling English quality as Crick, and although the character is obviously a genious, he seems more interested in a spot of tea than a new discovery at times, and Riley Neldam, as the young, graduate assistant Gosling, caught in a lot of crossfire, shows excellent timing with the hapless glances and deadpan lines Ms. Ziegler provides. The author also practically makes a comic duo of Watson and Crick in one scene, as the hotshot Yank and twee Brit sniff out secrets from the Wilkins-Franklin camp, tiptoeing toward their prize.

The discords are steadily entertaining, in part because C.S.A. Joanne DeNaut has cast the play extremely well and Ziegler has a good deal of fun with her script, ladling plenty of punch lines into the laboratory broth. Director Kimberly Senior’s staging is unerring, and as brisk and knowing as the one hour, 40-minute script. The acting is intelligent and light, and the play feels like it’s constantly on the move. Cameron Anderson’s austere set has an antiseptic look, runners around the four sides with a plexi-glass inserted center over a wood paneling pattern in the shape of an X, designed to imply the same photograph that confirmed the DNA double helix. The structure is raised and secured upstage several inches to give depth, putting the characters in a metaphorical microscope as well.

Jaymi Lee Smith’s forensic lighting, cutting through the black atmosphere, sees to it that as Crick and Watson finally unravel a secret held from mankind for millennia, all hint of color in Rosalind's face vanishes, a deathly pallor taking its stead. Cricket Myers managed Sound Design perfectly, Elisa Benjoni supplied wonderfully correct-era costuming, and Alyssa Escalante was a concise Stage Manager. David Ivers is Artistic Director; David Emmes is a Founding Artistic Director with SCR; Paula Tomei serves as Managing Director, and Producers are Joan & Andy Fimiano and Jean & Tim Weiss.

The show is, of course, not strictly accurate history, but while Ziegler clearly did plenty of homework, she frankly declares that “Photograph 51” is a work of fiction. That is very much how it plays — not that you don’t believe what Ziegler is showing you, but that you do.

"Photograpgh 51," a cross-section of a historical account that burns the negative into your head for time to come, is playing now through March 24th at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. Highly Recommended with superior acting throughout. For tickets, please inquire at:

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer


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