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THEATER REVIEW Photograph 51
by Lauren Emily Whalen
2019-01-29

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Playwright: Anna Ziegler

At: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. Tickets: $50-74; CourtTheatre.org . Runs through: Feb. 17

On its surface, Photograph 51 is the story of Rosalind Franklin. Haven't heard of her? You're not alone.

The British scientist photographed the double helix of DNA for the very first time in 1951. She may well have made that major inroad into human biology on her own, were it not for illness and other extenuating circumstances ( ahem, sexism ). In telling Rosalind's story mostly through the eyes of five of her male colleagues, playwright Anna Ziegler sends a clear message.

At least, it's clear to women.

Throughout the play, Dr. Franklin ( Chaon Cross ) confounds her male counterparts—and they are all male, as the scientific field post-World War II is largely a boys' club. Young hotshot Watson ( Alex Goodrich ) and his married but philandering partner, Crick ( Nicholas Harazin ), are surprised to learn she's "not fat." Lab assistant Ray Gosling ( Gabriel Ruiz ) is more understanding of her reserved, stoic nature but as a perpetual PhD student, feels it isn't his place to defend her. Most of all, Maurice Wilkins ( Nathan Hosner ) is confounded by his partner on the study, who refuses to make small talk and turns down his small, thoughtful gifts. Most women love kind gestures, so why is Miss Franklin—throughout the course of the play, he never abides by her request to address her as Dr. Franklin—so mean?

He doesn't use the word "mean," but it is heavily implied. And in that respect, not much has changed since 1951. For all of the discourse about Me Too and toxic masculinity, most of the Nice Guys of the world just don't get it. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they insist that they are different from the bad guys, if only women will acknowledge that. In their persistent attempts to show women how great they are, men like Dr. Wilkins—and there are so many of them—become a large part of the problem.

However, by skewing the narrative through male perspectives almost exclusively, does playwright Ziegler do the audience ( and Dr. Franklin ) a disservice? She's a brilliant scientist, having come to the DNA project from a coveted fellowship in Paris. She works harder than anyone, not only to prove herself but because she's dedicated to science and wants to make important discoveries, no matter who gets the attribution. Why couldn't Photograph 51, a story about Dr. Franklin, feature more Dr. Franklin?

Director Vanessa Stalling executes thoughtful staging on the two-level set, often featuring Rosalind on the ground, taking photographs of cells and analyzing them, as the men loom above her on the upper level. Arnel Sancianco's scenic design is nothing short of genius, with large glass windows and the green color scheme found in laboratories to this day, plus a tile floor that with Keith Parham's lighting, illuminates cell patterns that show the true art to pure science. Cross shows her brilliance once again as the intelligent and driven Dr. Franklin, who may not be "fun" but is determined to get the job done.

Women, then and now, are used to dealing with men's opinions. In that respect, Photograph 51 is true to life. But Dr. Franklin's story is new to so many, and a little more of her narrative versus that of the men around her could have made Photograph 51 even more effective.


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