Using X-ray photography to measure and study the structure of atoms, scientists have cracked the architectural code of molecular life.
The late British scientist Rosalind Franklin deserves a good share of credit for that.
In “Photograph 51,” a thoughtful, informative docudrama about Franklin, now on at Seattle Repertory Theatre, playwright Anna Ziegler gives us an illuminating kind of theatrical X-ray: a double exposure of the process of a major scientific discovery, as well as the psychological and social X-factors that influenced it.
In a format similar to Michael Frayn’s science drama “Copenhagen,” Ziegler tells from different angles the story of Franklin’s role in the Nobel Prize-honored finding of the double-helix design of DNA. But her story is recounted by her male scientific rivals and collaborators, who saw her as something of an enigma.
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Franklin did not get her due in her male-dominated field. But in an expertly calibrated lead performance in which every gesture, wince and pause is essential data, actress Kirsten Potter dominates the stage.
With her ramrod bearing and prickly confidence, Potter’s guarded, laser-focused Franklin is clearly a brilliant woman who’s had to fight for every inch of peer respect. She’s loathe to share anything of her inner life, and her antennae pick up any quiver of patronizing, chauvinistic or anti-Semitic (she was Jewish) attitude from her London lab colleagues: Maurice Wilkins (Bradford Farwell), whose first faux pas is to lunch in a men-only campus lounge, instead of with Franklin; and her genial lab assistant, Gosling (Brian Earp), who slowly wins her trust.
But in Ziegler’s taut yet graceful script, a fine choice by the Rep, Franklin’s passion for science also shines through, as does the agility of her inquiring mind.
If Franklin’s defensiveness seems extreme at times, consider her dealings with another team of DNA investigators, Britain’s Francis Crick (MJ Sieber) and the ambitious young American, James Watson (brash, big-haired Benjamin Harris).
In this largely historical version of events, Wilkins grows increasingly unnerved as Franklin rebuffs him, professionally and socially. Exploiting his vulnerability, Watson and Crick contrive to get a sneak peek at her research, which leads them to hypothesize the double-helix model of DNA — and to win their 1962 Nobel Prize shared with Wilkins, for which Franklin received no credit.
Smoothly, briskly staged by Braden Abraham, on an efficient (if vertically outsized) set by Scott Bradley, “Photograph 51” neatly coils a scientific detective story around a rumination on how sexism, personality and morality can impact collaboration and creativity.
One has to lean forward at times to catch all the nuances in the human chemistry here. It would help if Sieber, Earp and even Farwell made stronger impressions: they wilt and fade too much, under Potter’s commanding gaze.
“Photograph 51” gives the lay viewer just enough science, as it sifts through the ironies of Franklin’s situation: Did her cool demeanor and cutting wit rob her of accolades? Did her insistence on irrefutable scientific proof keep her from first theorizing the double helix herself?
Or did gender inequality, upheld by men who’d rather critique her femininity than work in earnest with her, make a level playing field impossible?
Glimpses of her budding relationship with an admiring, like-minded American researcher, Don Caspar (appealing Aaron Blakely) suggest Franklin may have later found a more fulfilling partnership, had she not died at 37, in 1958.
But “Photograph 51” dabbles only a little in what-ifs. It honors Franklin by painting her as a complete person, with flaws and sterling attributes, and by evoking the thrills and risks of scientific pursuit itself.
A final irony: Franklin worked in her field until she succumbed to ovarian cancer — a disease only women get — that may have been triggered by her frequent exposures to X-ray radiation.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org