Performing Arts

Timely ‘Photograph 51’ dramatizes a female scientist’s battles against sexism in the 1950s

In the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre’s production of “Photograph 51,” scientist Rosalind Franklin (Amy Attaway) meets with sexism and derision from her co-worker (Robert Gibby Brand).
In the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre’s production of “Photograph 51,” scientist Rosalind Franklin (Amy Attaway) meets with sexism and derision from her co-worker (Robert Gibby Brand). Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre

Talk about fortuitous synchronicity!

On the same weekend that millions of women around the world marched to assert their rights, Kansas City’s Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre debuted “Photograph 51,” a hugely insightful and unexpectedly moving play about a groundbreaking woman scientist who never got her due.

Unfolding in British scientific labs in the early 1950s, Anna Ziegler’s play — deftly directed by Karen Paisley — is about the race to map DNA, the basic building block of all life.

That may sound insufferably dry, but “Photograph 51” is less about the nuts and bolts of scientific discovery than it is about the struggles of the human heart and psyche.

Rosalind Franklin (Amy Attaway), who uses X-rays to photograph the atomic and molecular structure of matter, comes to King’s College London to work in the laboratory run by Maurice Wilkins (Robert Gibby Brand). Almost immediately, their relationship is strained.

Wilkins is the very image of the stuffed-shirt Englishman, and Franklin is having none of his benign chauvinism — such as his lunching in the all-male common room and his refusal to address her as “Doctor.”

“I will not be anyone’s assistant,” she informs him. “I work best alone.”

In fact, Franklin’s struggles as a woman in science — and as a Jew — have left her quick to take offense. She wants only to do her research. She has no private life, has never dated, appears to have no hobbies or diversions.

Well, maybe one. In a lovely exchange she and Wilkins discuss their shared love of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.” For a brief moment their prickly relationship approaches something resembling amity.

Ziegler’s play — which unfolds in one 90-minute act — finds Franklin sharing the stage with five men who never leave. She is, in a sense, hemmed in by masculinity.

There is not only Wilkins, her boss, but also an American from Yale, the beaming, eager Don Caspar (Jordan Fox), who corresponds with her, who studies her research into DNA, and who seems just a wee bit infatuated with her.

There’s Gosling (R.H. Wilhoit), Franklin’s lab assistant, a sort of court jester/science geek who ofter serves as the play’s narrator and generates more than a few laughs.

And finally there are the brash American James Watson (John Cleary) and his Brit partner, Francis Crick (Coleman Crenshaw), who, like Franklin and Wilkins, are working to discover the nature of DNA.

At stake are bragging rights, a Nobel Prize and a place in the history books. Watson and Crick are determined to get there first, but they can only do so by laying hands on Franklin’s X-ray photos — especially Photograph 51, which suggests a double helix at the heart of all organic matter.

Watson and Crick ultimately triumphed because Franklin, whose photos were the key evidence, refused to speculate. Her fiercely scientific mind wanted facts, not theories. She wouldn’t come to a conclusion until she had all the information...and when in any endeavor do we have all the information?

Attaway’s Franklin pulls us in not because she’s charming but because she’s so rigorous and scrupulously honest. There’s virtue in her approach, if not much humanity. Only late in the proceedings do we sense Franklin’s regrets about the ascetic, practically monkish life she has chosen.

Brand, on the other hand, is both hugely amusing and borderline heartbreaking as Wilkins, who evolves from privileged pomposity to a genuine appreciation of his colleague that borders on romantic love. It’s a performance overflowing with small gestures and stifled frustrations, alternately comic and near-tragic.

But then all six players are superb. And thought it’s acted out on a largely bare stage — a few stools and lab tables — this production gets the details right, from the costuming (tweeds and sweater vests) to the British accents which, to this ear, sounded absolutely on the money.

Read freelancer Robert W. Butler's movie reviews at ButlersCinemaScene.com.

Onstage

“Photograph 51” continues through Jan. 29 at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main St. For more information, call 816-569-3226 or go to METKC.org.

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