When looking back on the history of the human race it always shocks me on how backwards a people we really can be. For example, why would a people restrict half of their fully functioning and intelligent members from trying to create advancements in their chosen fields? Yes, that's what we did and that's some of the central plotline of Anna Ziegler's "Photograph 51", currently playing at the Seattle Rep, focuses on. This engaging play shines a spotlight on an interesting moment in history where a brilliant scientist's work was hampered simply based on her gender.
Dr. Rosalind Franklin (Kirsten Potter) worked her way through the particularly male dominated world of science in the 1950's and rose through the ranks to be known as one of the tops in her field. So it's no surprise she would be asked to work on a project to discover the building blocks of DNA and attempt to photograph its structure. But despite her brilliant theories and work, she's not the one credited with its discovery. And why? Well, it's a little too simplistic to say it's strictly due to her gender but that did come into play as her treatment sometimes obscured her work which in turn closed off Dr. Franklin's personality and working style to make collaborating with her difficult, especially for the man who was to be her partner, Dr. Maurice Wilkins (Bradford Farwell). It was that difficulty, among other factors, that theoretically led those discoveries to not come from Dr. Franklin but from two of her competitors, Drs. James Watson and Francis Crick (Benjamin Harris and MJ Sieber).
Now I say theoretically as how much was stolen by Watson and Crick, how much of the romantic entanglements existed and how difficult she really was is all speculation and artistic license. Ziegler herself even notes that no one can really know what happened and the romantic relationship in her play is used for storytelling purposes and not from any notable history. But it's this speculation and supposition that drives the play as a storytelling medium and shines despite any historical inaccuracies.
Potter is remarkable as the stoic Franklin and delivers a rich and complex character despite her reserved nature. Farwell also manages a truly layered portrayal complete with some wonderful vulnerabilities taking his character beyond the stereotypical British stiff. Brian Earp is delightful as the placating assistant to Dr. Franklin complete with a wry little smile as he infuses the play with much of its comedy. Aaron Blakely as the eager American scientist, Don Caspar, who's infatuated with Dr. Franklin and her work lends an air of sweetness to the play and whether true or not amps up the love story of the piece nicely. Harris and Sieber turn in some fine bits of duplicitousness as the pair credited with the discovery built on Dr. Franklin's work. And the entire ensemble plays off each other with magnificent chemistry and timing.
The set from Scott Bradley is both practical and clever as it infuses elements of the helical imagery along with the isolation of the era. Specifically the men's lounge aspects to the sides of the performance area the actors would retreat to when not in the scene. The actors except Potter of course as women were not allowed in those men's lounges.
And so, while we've come pretty far since the 1950's, we all know there's still more to do. It's a little sobering to try and think where we as a people might be if we didn't always try to classify people based on gender, race, religion, orientation or any other element that makes us different and just looked at everyone as people. But then, out of conflict arises wonderful plays like this.
"Photograph 51" performs at the Seattle Rep through March 10th. For tickets or information contact the Rep box office at 206-443-2222 or visit them online at www.seattlerep.org.
Photo credit: Alan Alabastro