In an opening scene of "Photograph 51," biophysicist Rosalind Franklin explains that she loved her profession because "we made the invisible visible." While the statement is a crystalline description of her work, its inverse describes her place in the rarefied world of scientific research, where her achievements remained invisible for decades.
Anna Ziegler's compelling "Photograph 51," which opens Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's season, brings to vivid life the race for the "secret of life," as scientists around the world worked feverishly from 1951 to 1953 toward the discovery of the structure of DNA. Three of them -- James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins -- ultimately won a Nobel Prize in 1962 for their revelations. That their achievement relied on the work of a fourth scientist, Rosalind Franklin, and her "Photograph 51," which revealed the helical structure of DNA, was barely acknowledged.
Ziegler transforms what could be dry, obscure material into an electric journey of suspense that's also a titanic clash of personalities. Franklin, played with focused intensity by Bethany Ford, is prickly and abrasive, impatient with anything that detracts from her work. At the same time, the atmosphere of easy misogyny and casual anti-Semitism that surrounds her helps explain her alertness to slights and condescension.
Her colleague Maurice Wilkins, in a beautifully modulated performance by Bob Malos, masks his attraction to her with awkward pomposity, refusing even to address her by the title of "Doctor."
James Watson (Dustin Bronson) and Francis Crick (Wade Vaughn), a pair of ambitious scientists from a rival lab, simultaneously dismiss her abilities and take advantage of her results. Their wonderfully snide and smirking performances are a highlight of the show. Only two characters acknowledge her brilliance: Franklin's graduate assistant, Ray Gosling, in an adeptly deadpan performance by Brandon Ewald, and Don Casper (played by Alex Brightwell), a budding American scientist whom she mentors.
Warren C. Bowles' flawless direction exhibits an almost musical quality as these events unfold and each character reveals different, and often competing, versions of history. Aided by an outstanding ensemble, he creates a palpable sense of urgency and passion as scenes move back and forth in time, as well as a subtlety of tone that keeps the action unpredictable. Overlying the whole is a haunting sense of regret for lost opportunities and missed connections.
"Photograph 51" makes for compelling drama and this stellar production ekes out every bit of its emotional wallop. Who knew biophysics could have you on the edge of your seat?
Lisa Brock writes regularly about theater.