“Photograph 51” written by Anna Ziegler and Directed by Vanessa Stalling at the Court Theatre is a snapshot of the life of British chemist Rosalind Franklin (Chaon Cross).
Until recently she had gone virtually un-credited for her contribution to the discovery that revealed the structure of DNA to be a double helix. But the discovery earned her research colleague Maurice Wilkins (Nathan Hosner) and two rival collaborators James Watson (Alex Goodrich) and Francis Crick (Nicholas Harazin) the Nobel Prize.
Franklin was hired by King’s College London for her cutting edge expertise in the field of X-ray crystallography and assured that she would be in charge of her own research. Instead, she was assigned to Wilkins’ DNA project thus leaving her status of independence unresolved at best.
Given that this was the 1950s, Franklin found that it was still an “old boys club” that excluded her on the simple basis that she was a woman.
This production and Franklin’s photograph #51 that first showed the double helix shape, reveal that life can be beautiful, complex and indistinct so takes some effort to understand what is before you.
The play is best described as a series of tableaux that sputter forth in rapid succession something like a slide show rather than a more traditional stream of consciousness.
It is a challenging story to tell because it requires the audience be brought up-to-speed on the science, research environment and significance of the work. All things that the average person may not be readily familiar with but which incidentally was apparently not lost on this University of Chicago, Hyde Park audience that seemed to revel in the sometimes petty nuances of the personal interactions.
Two plays that come to mind that had similar obstacles to overcome are Bertolt Brecht’s “Life of Galileo” and Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia.” I do not feel that Anna Ziegler’s writing and approach to storytelling is on the same par. I think she opted for the more expedient option that circumvented the need to tell the story through the eyes and actions of the players.
I am just nerdy enough to have been anxiously looking forward to this production and was somewhat surprised but not disappointed by the approach.
Research assistant and PhD candidate Ray Gosling (Gabriel Ruiz) handles a good deal of the exclamatory narration though each of the characters explains the relative facts and actions followed by a short exchange of dialogue.
This allows the story to move more quickly in time-lapse fashion where things happen but the background remains relatively static. After all, this is a research lab where progress is slow and deliberate and there is not much actual physical movement.
In the end this, is an exploration of the microcosm and macrocosm. As the players search for the essence of life in a test tube they expose how the ultimate organisms interact with each other.
The sexual tension that is interjected by Franklin’s female presence into this all male environment and its relationship to the exploration of how life is replicated is not lost.
The story suggests some romantic interest developing between Franklin and research assistant Don Caspar (Yousof Sultani) as well as more overt feelings expressed by Wilkins.
Ziegler and Stalling inject some humor into material that could easily have become too erudite to be enjoyable.
The allusion to sexual inequality and the questions of whether Franklin’s exclusion from the Nobel Prize was systematic sexism or might have been mitigated had she been “more friendly” or more of a “team player” offers some universal food-for-thought and post production discussion.
Scenic designer Arnel Sancianco, lighting designer Keith Parham and projection designer Paul Deziel have collaborated to create what I believe could be the best set design I have seen in the past year or two. Like the topic itself it is simple, complex and elegant.
A grid work of soaring floor to ceiling window frames, three layers deep, creates an effect that is both literal and abstract. The apparent wooden material is painted in the perfect cream and dull institutional green of the period but later lights up to suggest a kind of computerized network that graphically displays the thought process and infinite number of possibilities that are firing in the neurons of the brains of these research scientists. This concept is mimicked in the tile floor that also periodically lights up between the cracks to suggest additional pathways of thought.
Arnel Saciano stated in an interview on the Court Theatre website that the panorama of windows contributes to an “exposed feeling that someone is watching your every move, waiting for you to fail.”
There are two spiral staircases on either side of the grid leading to a catwalk and allowing the action to take place on multiple levels elevating the visual effect and providing a greater sense of movement.
The spiral staircases are actually a physical pun that tauntingly suggests the elusive structure they seek is obviously right in front of us.
This is an insightful peek into the inner workings and personal struggles of individuals who labor to make great discoveries leading to paradigm shifts in understanding of our world and to huge advances in science and technology. And that their work often goes relatively unnoticed and unappreciated by the general public.
I have never seen a bad production at the Court Theatre and this is no exception. It is theater at its best, challenging the mind and well executed.
DETAILS: “Photograph 51” is at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis, Chicago, through Feb. 23, 2019. Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission. For tickets and information call (773) 753-4472 or visit Court Theatre.
For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago