THE BASICS: PHOTOGRAPH 51 by Anna Ziegler, directed by Katie Mallinson, starring Jacob Albarella, Ray Boucher, John Profeta, Dan Torres, and Adam Yellen with Kristen Tripp Kelley playing Chemist/Crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, runs Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 3:30 and 7:30, and Sundays at 2:00 through November 14 in the Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre at the Benderson Family Building, 2640 North Forest Rd, Getzville, NY 14068, about 20 minutes from anywhere in Buffalo. (716) 650-7626, www.jccbuffalo.org/jrt. Runtime: 100 minutes without intermission.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: This play reveals the little-known but true story of Rosalind Franklin, PhD, a woman scientist working in the 1950s to map the contours of the DNA molecule using a method called X-Ray Crystallography. Unbeknownst to Franklin, her now famous “Photograph 51” surreptitiously shown to researchers Watson and Crick revealed to them the actual double helix that we now know as the structure of DNA. Subtle, nuanced, exciting, we get caught up in the chase to discover the secret of life, it’s almost a science-thriller. Along the way, PHOTOGRAPH 51 explores gender bias, the isolation of research, ambition at its best, and at its worst.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Director Katie Mallinson is two for two in my book when it comes to directing plays about physicists in a way that keeps an audience on the edge of the seat. Several years back I was so impressed when she directed a Niagara University student production of COPENHAGEN by Michael Frayn, another 100 minute, no intermission play with intense dialog about science, based on a 1941 meeting between the physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. In that play, much of the drama came from learning just how close the Nazis came to developing the atom bomb. If she could create that magic with students, imagine what she does with experienced actors. Now, in PHOTOGRAPH 51, the topic is DNA, the secret of life.
In her Director’s Note, Mallinson describes the play as “a work of imaginative speculation” given that five of the scientists on stage “had the privilege of time to place their work in the narrative of history” while Franklin’s early death cheated her of that. Mallinson further writes that “… it is not a documentary; it’s an artistic experiment.” And who better to know that than Mallinson, whose many credits before have been for “dramaturge” – that little understood role in the theater which provides, among other things, context and deep background for both the director and the actors so that everyone can make informed choices. And this play is well informed.
Also to be singled out is Sound Designer Tom Maker, a Buffalo treasure, able to come up with just the right music or sound-scape for every scene. And Costume Designer Kari Drozd. And Stage Manager Cali Smith. And, it’s so nice to have experienced actors on the stage, all favorites, Jacob Albarella, Ray Boucher, John Profeta, Dan Torres, and Adam Yellen. But the star of the evening, and a great casting choice, is Kristen Tripp Kelley as the sometimes prickly but always honest Franklin. You can enjoy a short clip of her comments on the role here.
It’s a hotly debated topic, whether Rosalind Franklin on her own (and she was not what we’d call today “a team player”) could have come up with the final double helix model. Also, some downplay the significance of the one photo’s importance to Watson and Crick who were very close to finalizing their model. But, if all that conjecture were fact, then would we have endured a 100-minute lecture on the history of science? Probably not. And that’s just one level of engagement for this play. Plays are about people with all their flaws and who doesn’t want to peek into the lives of great minds?
In a 2015 interview piece in The New York Times, Alexis Soloski wrote about Anna Ziegler: “…all her plays explore ethical issues of one kind or another, the duties we owe to ourselves and to each other. They are filled with characters… who are trying to behave well and only sometimes succeeding. ‘I have a lot of sympathy for my characters,’ she said. ‘The people I write are people who are really trying to do their best.’ Asked if this jibed with her view of the real world, she said: ‘I guess I do believe that most people are sort of well intentioned. And yet enormous mistakes occur anyway and we have to live our lives knowing that.’”
Watson and Crick and Wilkins ultimately received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1962, four years after the death of Franklin, and Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously. By the way, if you want to know more, read the now classic The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, an autobiographical account of the discovery of the double helix structure written by James D. Watson. But I also just found out about Rosalind Franklin and DNA, by Anne Sayre, which is apparently very critical of Watson’s account, especially in his treatment of Rosalind Franklin.
And, of course, there’s always a Buffalo connection, and that’s our very own 1985 Nobel Prize in Chemistry winning crystallographer, Herbert Hauptman (1917-2011), associated with Buffalo’s Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute.
So for a variety of reasons – historical interest, women in science, another look at gender biastgripping drama, smart dialog, and great acting, this is a play not to be missed.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!
Lead image: PHOTOGRAPH 51 in rehearsal at JRT L-R John Profeta as Maruice Wilkins, Daniel Torres as Ray Gosling, Kristen Tripp Kelley as Rosalind Franklin | Photos courtesy Jewish Repertory Theatre