The Lantern Theater is opening its fall season with a revelatory production of Anna Ziegler’s “Photograph 51,” a play about Rosalind Franklin, whose X-ray image became the key factor in the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA.
Eros and logos, desire and reason, love and science, are in opposition and tandem — like the two strands of a double helix — throughout this captivating story of Franklin’s fraught life.
Franklin (played beautifully by Philadelphia actress, Genevieve Perrier) works in isolation at King’s College in London in the 1950s, where she is a triple threat to her male scientist-colleagues, James Watson and Francis Crick: Jewish, brilliant, and beautiful. “She’s not fat,” Watson laments when he meets her.
The audience witnesses the driven and prickly Franklin, subjected to both sexism and anti-Semitism as the men around her race to unlock the structure of DNA. It is witnessed too how the mundane, quotidian co-exists with heights of grandeur as Watson can wax poetic about unlocking the secrets of the universe and complains that his teeth hurt.
Franklin refuses to become embroiled in the petty scientific rat race that Watson and Crick play. “She’s a cipher where a woman should be,” the sexist anti-Semite Watson comments.
While the most obvious story playwright Ziegler tells is the story about Franklin’s life, her evocative writing suggests more than meets the eye. “We made the invisible visible,” Franklin’s partner, Maurice Wilkins (the excellent Joseph McGranaghan), says. And Ziegler too has made something about scientific pursuit more palpable in her own dramatic creation. With this play, she has given us a glimpse into the mysterious, zigzag work of science with its petty jealousies, power plays, false turns, mistakes and sexual gossip.
It is a play of ideas, which illuminates the poetry and philosophy behind scientific investigation. The playwright grounds her own investigation into the nature of creation, God, memory and faith through a story about a mysterious woman who did her work quietly and methodically, and in doing so discovered one of the keys to human life.
Spoiler alert: “I do love the shape of things even before they mean something,” Franklin muses at the end of the play, when she knows she is dying of ovarian cancer.
Franklin is only 37 years old and Watson and Crick’s model of the double helix had been made public. They will be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1962. When Wilkins despairs “we lost,” Franklin adds, “No, the world won.” It is a stunning moment of theater.
A love story is here too, in this elegantly structured drama, with its minimal stage set by Meghan Jones, and its precise direction by Kathryn MacMillan.
Ziegler imagines Franklin attending a performance of Shakespeare’s “Winter’s Tale,” where Antigonus says “the spirits of the dead may walk again.” In “Photograph 51,” through Ziegler’s imaginative act of remembering the life of Franklin, who had been relegated to a scientific footnote, we see that the spirit of the dead does indeed walk again.