Review: PHOTOGRAPH 51 at Metropolitan Ensemble Theater

By: Jan. 23, 2017

A strong cast of six in "Photograph 51" at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre spins an unfamiliar, but excellently told tale of a female scientist in 1950's Britain. Playwright Anna Ziegler recounts the work of crystallographer Dr. Rosalind Franklin and her difficult struggle for equal treatment in the workplace.

Dr. Franklin's work in X-Ray photography led to the identification of DNA's double helix structure. This fundamental step forward allows for the groundbreaking study on chromosomes that continues up to today. DNA strands are the fundamental building blocks of life itself.

The opening scene features Amy Attaway as Dr. Rosalind Franklin dressed in late 40's early 50's traveling garb. She stands downstage center, grabs the audience, and commands them. She remains formidable in all her interactions with the other characters.

As directed by Karen Paisley, "Photograph 51" is a fascinating, edge of your seat rendering of one woman's fight to establish her value as a scientist and as a colleague.

The roughly 100 minute one act play is unique. The cast of one woman and five men remain on stage for the entirety of the performance. There is no set, save for a few stools, table and props. Pools of light delineate focus areas.

The actors unconventionally tell their story serially by breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience while serving as continuity between more traditional scenes and sometimes allowing us to hear what a character may be thinking. Paisley has designed a movement scheme that rotates around the scenic action in what sometimes resembles the structure of DNA itself. Movement literally and figuratively keeps the action moving at a breakneck pace.

Rosalind Franklin was an Englishwoman of Jewish extraction. Franklin was not devout, but her Jewishness is mentioned several times as a way of explaining her separateness. She earned a PhD in Chemistry from Cambridge University in 1945. With war having just ended, Franklin worked in Paris as a researcher before accepting a fellowship at King's College in London. Franklin accepted on the premise she might head her own research team, but was immediately reassigned to another team headed by Maurice Wilkins (Robert Gibby Brand) and in supervision of doctoral student Raymond Gosling (R.H. Wilhoit).

Sparks fly between Franklin and Wilkins almost immediately. As the days pass, Wilkins learns to appreciate Franklin's value as a colleague, but has difficulty rising above his own pre-war chauvinistic sensibilities. Franklin was not a great deal of help to him personally. By nature, she tended to be direct and challenging to her male co-workers. She did not play especially well with others except with Gosling and the still to be introduced Dr. Don Caspar.

Dr. Wilkins shared part of Franklin's research (without her knowledge or permission) with Dr. James Watson (John Cleary) and Dr. Francis Crick (Coleman Crenshaw) of the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge. Watson and Crick built on Franklin's data to describe the double helix structure of DNA.

Dr. Donald Caspar played here by Jordan Fox is a visiting American scientist who collaborates with Franklin. He is also a pseudo love interest for her. In real life, Franklin and Caspar were close friends who worked together for a year after her time at Kings College. During this period, Franklin was diagnosed with the cervical Cancer that ultimately killed her at age 37 in 1957.

Watson, Click, and Wilkins were awarded the 1962 Noble Prize in Medicine. The Nobel rules require all awardees be living. Rosalind Franklin was omitted from her contributions to the discovery by her death.

"Photograph 51" is very much worth seeing. This relatively new play was much awarded during its London iteration in 2015 featuring Nicole Kidman. It is scheduled for a Broadway run in the fall of 2017 again with Miss Kidman. Tickets for the Kansas City production are available on the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre website or by telephoning 816-569-3226. "Photograph 51" runs through Jan 29 at the MET.

Photo by Bob Paisley

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