The New York Times has recently initiated a project by the Obituaries Department called “Overlooked”* that seeks to bring to light the achievements of distinguished women who did not receive the attention they deserved. It is inspiring to read about these women who were so accomplished in so many fields of endeavor, but never received the accolades that, by all rights, they should have had. Playwright Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51, now playing at South Coast Rep, addresses the work of one such woman, a British scientist named Rosalind Franklin, who was instrumental in identifying the double-helix structure of DNA.
Using a process called crystallography, she made the photograph that paved the way to the model of DNA as we now know it, which earned, in 1962, the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for three men— James Watson, Francis Crick, and Franklin’s associate, Maurice Watkins. Watson suggested that Franklin should share in the honor, but she had died in 1956, and the Nobel Committee chose not to so honor her, even though there was no rule at that time against a posthumous award. And so it goes.
The story of Rosalind Franklin (Helen Sadler in a sterling performance) is the struggle of a brilliant woman of superb competency who endures in her profession despite the mostly unwitting condescension of her colleagues and associates. It is not that they were evil or conspiring, they just didn’t know how to deal with a woman who demanded respect in a time when female scientists were an oddity. In instances of institutional disregard, her partner in her new position at King’s College in London, Maurice Wilkins (George Ketsios), refuses to use her honorific title of Doctor Franklin, addressing her as Rosalind instead, when he himself expects to called Doctor Wilkins. And when lunch is called, Wilkins goes off to the male senior common room in which Franklin is not allowed. These are small but telling unintended snubs that can grind on a person.
In director Kimberly Senior’s inspired staging of Photograph 51, five men in business suits march up and onto Cameron Anderson’s sleek, rectangular, steeply raked stage, and form a line on the downstage edge as Rosalind Franklin, shorter than any of the men, enters after them and stands of the stage left end of the line. It is a vivid display of with who and with what the central character must contend. Besides the aforementioned Wilkins, the other characters are graduate student, Ray Gosling (Riley Neldam), who serves as Dr. Franklin’s assistant and also takes on the narrative role of informing the audience in a way similar to that of The Stage Manager in Our Town or Chorus in Henry V; American scientist James Watson (Giovanni Adams) and his associate Francis Crick (Anil Margsahayam), who in the telling of this story, manage to steal a march on the other scientists when they see Photograph 51; and finally Don Caspar (Josh Odsess-Rubin), a sympathetic, newly minted PhD, who is the only person Franklin warms up to.
Anna Ziegler’s intriguing, intellectual play had this audience member sitting in rapt attention throughout. It is excellent drama with plenty of sly comic relief that fuels chortling and chuckling. As is expected at a South Coast show, the production is superbly staged with a very cool set by the aforementioned Cameron Anderson, wonderfully illumined by lighting designer Jaymi Lee Smith. Elisa Benzoni designed the costumes; Cricket Myers is sound designer; and Joanne DeNaut, CSA, is the casting director. The production manager is Holly Ahlborn and the stage manager is Alyssa Escalante.
Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51 continues on the Julianne Argyros Stage through March 24 at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.