The most important X-ray crystallography photo in history
‘Photograph 51’ is a sympathetic look at Dr. Rosalind Franklin’s contribution to the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure
Written by Anna Ziegler
Directed by Rebecca Bradshaw
The Nora Theatre Company
Central Square Theater
March 14–April 14
After leaving the theater, I went back to lab to analyze X-ray images of the galaxy until midnight; I decided to do this instead of going home because I felt inspired by Dr. Rosalind Franklin. Anna Ziegler’s wondrous script of Photograph 51 breathes life into the meticulous work of data analysis. The Nora Theatre Company’s production set is just as meticulously crafted; the microscope, the photographs of DNA, the equipment, and the set design are not toy facsimiles but essentially real. Franklin’s and Dr. Maurice Wilkins’s (Barlow Adamson) two desks are on opposite ends, allowing Franklin and Wilkins to circle each other, argue, talk, walk, and everything in between in this laboratory space. All this is symmetrically intertwined with the plot, the fervid discovery of the nature of DNA and Franklin’s contributions to it. From a metaphoric play of metaphoric ideas — “shapes within shapes,” as Dr. Franklin calls it — this production of Photograph 51 and the people whose stories it tells draws this race to discovery into and out of focus. It’s mesmerising to watch.
“One sees something new each time one looks at beautiful things,” says Franklin, as she recalls memories of trips into the mountain, the snow, the trees, the wind. It’s a rare thing to see science portrayed with such beauty in words, but even rarer to see a female figure in theater portrayed as not: Stacy Fischer plays a Franklin that is terse, stubborn, confident, and most of all, unflinchingly intelligent. As poor graduate student Josh Gluck (Raymond Gosling) finds out, Franklin stays late every night to finish her work and remains stubbornly doubtful of her results because in her position, she can never be wrong.
Photograph 51 attempts to rectify the blight of Franklin’s lack of recognition in historical accounts, but it acknowledges everyone’s faults, including Franklin’s. The only two roles left not open to interpretation are Dr. Donald Caspar (Jesse Hinson) and Dr. James Watson (Michael Underhill). Caspar, who is introduced as an admirer of Dr. Franklin’s work through mailed letters, pays her perfect respect once he joins her in her lab. The exchanges between them are endearing and amusing. As light illuminates Caspar from off the stage, he speaks with absolute reverence through his letters. The rest of the stage is dark: it’s night, Franklin works at her desk, the only place illuminated. To Caspar’s disappointment, she continues to ignore his letters. Eventually she responds in time, and he does complete his doctorate thesis. Meanwhile, Watson is introduced at first as an impulsive upstart who pays no respect to Franklin (or anyone really, including Wilkins) unless he needs something. With Dr. Francis Crick (John Tracey), Crick and Watson form a sort of comedic villain duo that, as most biology textbooks may or may not say, discovered the secret to life. Underhill plays an exaggerated caricature, with his wild hair, his gangly movements, and his comedic sexism that teeters the line, while Tracey's Crick is less so, even coming to a soft conclusion that all he had ever wanted was to study the world, not for the glory or monetary reward of it.
Our central pairing is Franklin and Wilkins, from their first meeting to their final, fictional meeting after Franklin’s death from ovarian cancer. Fischer plays off Adamson well, and they should, as their tense relationship is meant to be the heart of the play. Adamson’s Wilkins possesses a warm sympathy, and we have to love and hate the two of them. For Franklin, her work is what matters; her gender and personality don’t. For Wilkins, it’s the opposite. Their first meeting sets the tone for the rest of the play: Wilkins does not invite Franklin to eat with the other male researchers, refuses to acknowledge her as Dr. Franklin, and believes her to be his assistant, not his equal. It’s clear they are coming into their arguments with different mindsets. Wilkins tries to remedy his mistake after their first meeting, but we know it is doomed from the start. In this regard, they are the most suitable research partners that never could have been. It’s a courtship that isn’t fulfilled because of misunderstandings, of what isn’t said just as much as what is said.
But there is one account when they did speak to each other eye to eye. Franklin saw a production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and recalls the character Hermione but can’t remember who the actress was. Wilkins, who saw Franklin at the theater and wished he had the courage to speak to her, says that he also didn’t remember who the actress was. “She simply didn’t stand out, I suppose,” remarks Franklin at the end. But she did stand out. And Photograph 51, the clearest and most remarkable image of X-ray crystallography produced at the time, remains her testament that women in science made remarkable contributions, that her work led to the discovery of DNA’s structure, and that research revealed the beauty of secrets in the biological world.
Update 4/11/19: A previous version of this article swapped the names of two actors, incorrectly referencing Michael Underhill as Dr. Francis Crick and John Tracey as Dr. James Watson.