Part science lesson, part love story and part philosophical rumination on the meaning of life, Anna Ziegler’s “Photograph 51” is a memorable account of one woman’s unheralded contribution to one of the major scientific discoveries of the 20th century.
Good performances across the board elevate Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre’s thoughtful production of Ziegler’s 2008 play about sexism and professional competition among a group of British and American scientists who established the molecular structure of DNA in the 1950s. Director Karen Paisley stages the piece with admirable economy and precision.
Plays about science and scientists don’t come along that often, but Paisley (the MET’s artistic director) is drawn to dramas that explore ethics, morality and injustice among people with brain power to spare. In 2008 she staged a memorable production of Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen,” which addressed the theoretical work that led to the creation of the atomic bomb. Last year she directed and starred in the unwieldy “Emilie: Les Marquise Du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight,” Lauren Gunderson’s play about a brilliant 18th-century mathematician who struggled for recognition in the male-dominated Enlightenment.
“Photograph 51,” although less stimulating than “Copenhagen,” is in a way the most effective of the bunch. This probing drama focuses on the pioneering work of British chemist and crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, whose work contributed to the understanding of DNA. As depicted by Ziegler, three of Franklin’s male colleagues shared a Nobel Prize for work that relied in part on her research and X-ray photographs. Arguably, Franklin, who died of ovarian cancer in 1958, would have deserved a piece of that Nobel had she lived.
Science plays seem almost always to be structured as recollections from beyond the grave or metaphysical intersections of time and place, and this one is no exception. This is a memory play in which characters share their recollections of how it all went down while at other times the drama unfolds in the “present” of the early and mid-50s.
Performed as a 90-minute one-act, Ziegler’s drama focuses on two groups of scientists: At King’s College the research team consists of Franklin, Maurice Watkins and a young Ph.D. candidate, Raymond Gosling. Later they are joined by Don Caspar, an American. Meanwhile, at Cambridge, Francis Crick and another American, James Watson, are conducting their own DNA research. Dramatic tension derives from competitive spirit as well as Crick’s growing affection for Franklin — feelings he can’t or won’t articulate. Similarly, Caspar, the American, develops his own feelings for Franklin, whose single-minded devotion to her work inhibits romantic reciprocation with either man.
One could argue that Franklin’s character is less developed than it should be, but Amy Attaway brings the role to life with remarkable precision. Her performance is an impressive succession of smart choices, resulting in a series of indelible physical and emotional snapshots. Even more noteworthy, she holds her own with the formidable Robert Gibby Brand, who plays Watkins as a man possessed of a keen intellect but precious few social graces. Nobody in town plays educated Brits better than Brand and here he delivers one of his finest performances. Indeed, Brand and Attaway together find a beating heart in a play about chilly, eccentric science nerds.
No weak links are to be found among the supporting players: Jordan Fox brings stolidity and muted passion to Don Caspar. R.H. Wilhoit, as Gosling, is a frequently comic presence whose humor never undermines the drama. John Cleary finds honest comedy in his portrayal as the excitable, impassioned Watson. And the reliable Coleman Crenshaw is memorable as Crick. Nice to see quality ensemble work.
Paisley receives credit for the production design, which consists of a few desks, chairs and stools within a non-realistic environment that allows the language and the actors to grab the viewer’s imagination.
A motif in the Franklin-Watkins relationship is a 1951 production of “A Winter’s Tale,” seen by both characters but separately. They vividly recall the star, John Gielgud, but cannot recall who played the compassionate Hermione, the resurrected queen. Ziegler’s point seems clear: That sometimes those who make vital contributions are simply forgotten.
“Photograph 51” runs through Jan. 29 at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main St. Call 816-569-3226 or go to www.metkc.org.