BWW Review: Talented Cast Shows there Is More than Science to Mad Cow's PHOTOGRAPH 51

BWW Review: Talented Cast Shows there Is More than Science to Mad Cow's PHOTOGRAPH 51

In the last two years, Orlando's Mad Cow Theatre has assumed the mantle as one of the Southeast's leaders in producing "Science Plays." In addition to their Second Annual Science Play Festival, which begins Friday, February 27th, the Church Street theatre recently premiered Anna Ziegler's affecting play PHOTOGRAPH 51, about the race to discover the structure of DNA. On first blush, such a technical topic doesn't seem like the most obvious choice for a compelling drama, but what Ziegler and director Denise Gillman obviously understand is that a good play, no matter its subject, is best when focused on human relationships and emotions. PHOTOGRAPH 51, which seems as if it was written for Mad Cow's intimate Zehngebot-Stonerock Theatre, provides plenty of science, but truly excels when the actors pull back the layers on their characters' intricacies.

A surprisingly funny memory play, PHOTOGRAPH 51 is told by Dr. Maurice Wilkins (Steven Lane), with the helpBWW Review: Talented Cast Shows there Is More than Science to Mad Cow's PHOTOGRAPH 51 of friends and colleagues. In 1951 Wilkins was joined at London's King's College by Dr. Rosalind Franklin (Jennifer Christa Palmer), a young scientist who was far more comfortable with x-rays and specimen than she was with other people. Though they were to be research partners, Wilkins immediately alienates Franklin, and her hesitation to work with him might have changed the entire course of scientific history.

Though the play is filled with technical jargon, a lack of genetic familiarity is never a handicap to understanding or appreciating the work. In fact, the characters' knowledge and passion for their complex research only serves to underscore and explain the motivations behind the decisions that they make. In searching to understand how the recently discovered DNA works, Franklin, Wilkins, and their rivals James Watson (Adam Reilly) and Francis Crick (Scott Browning), make personal and ethical sacrifices, that, in the end, may or may not prove worthwhile.

Each member of the cast provides a layered and nuanced portrayal, and they all deserve recognition, but it is Palmer who most stands out. The fact that she is the only woman in the cast reinforces the institutionally misogynistic world in which Dr. Franklin worked; a theme that still has resonance in today's world. From good-old-boy sexism to patronizing passive-aggression (not to mention latent anti-Semitism), Franklin fights for her rights as a woman and a scientist. That being typed, Franklin is not without flaw. She is curt and arrogant, but Palmer gives her such life and vitality that, despite her obvious faults, you root for her; despite the fact that she is (likely) far more intelligent than you could ever imagine being, you feel a connection to her. These are no easy tasks, and it takes a special performer, like Palmer, to pull them off successfully.

Lane leads the male ensemble with a sheepish sincerity that draws you to his side. As Franklin's graduate assistant Ray Gosling, Ryan Kim peppers the heady dialogue with well-timed one-liners. As American Watson, Reilly presents a capable foil for Franklin. BWW Review: Talented Cast Shows there Is More than Science to Mad Cow's PHOTOGRAPH 51His intelligence and arrogance match hers, but there is an underlying smarminess that makes him much less sympathetic. Though his British accent seemed to come and go, Browning brings much depth to Crick, a character that could easily become an afterthought. Peter Travis' Don Caspar serves as a gentle window into Franklin's sweeter side.

In addition to the taught script and impressive acting, PHOTOGRAPH 51's direction and design are exceptional. From Gillman's evocative staging to Rebecca Pancoast's creative scenic design to Jerry Klein's subtle lighting, each aspect of the production adds more and more to marvel over.

Though the subject matter is not that of what we consider traditional theatre, PHOTOGRAPH 51 has all of the heart, intelligence, and humor to make it a surprisingly compelling work of theatre. To purchase your tickets, visit Mad Cow Theatre's website, or call 407-297-8788. Also, for more information on their Second Annual Science Play Festival, which begins on Friday, February 27th, click here.

Have you gone down into Dr. Franklin's lab? Did you find PHOTOGRAPH 51 as touching as I did? Let me know in the comments below, or by "Liking" and following BWW Orlando on Facebook and Twitter using the buttons below. You can also chat with me about the show on Twitter @BWWMatt.

Photo Credit:
1) Steven Lane, Ryan Kim, and Jennifer Christa Palmer | Mad Cow Theatre
2) Jennifer Christa Palmer | Mad Cow Theatre
3) Scott Browning, Adam Reilly, and Steven Lane | Mad Cow Theatre

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