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Photograph 51 — Lantern Theater

Photo 51 -- interiorJames Watson’s manuscript for his best-selling account of how he other scientists determined the structure of DNA, “The Double Helix,” was so controversial, the Harvard University Press refused in 1968 to publish it.

Two of the people Watson worked with closely, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, objected to the way Watson’s book veered from science and included personal information, some unflattering, to people involved the hunt for the DNA model, one that would change, and accelerate, the course of microbiology for all time. Watson was especially critical of Wilkins’s colleague at King’s College, London, Rosalind Franklin. (Watson and Crick, teammates on the DNA project worked at Cambridge.)

Watson, responding mostly to Crick and Wilkins, changed some of the more incendiary passages of “The Double Helix,” which quickly acquired a new publisher, two in fact, Atheneum in the United States and Weidenfeld & Nicolson in the United Kingdom. Lisa Jardine, in her marvelous 1999 book, “Ingenious Pursuits,” recounts how one reviewer, Robert L. Sinsheimer for Science and Engineering, said “The Double Helix” was two books, one a brilliant, incisive story of an epic scientific breakthrough, the other a vicious portrait of the scientists involved, one that made scientists into seekers of opportunistic fame and accolades rather than seekers of knowledge for human benefit.

Anna Ziegler has put both ideas Sinsheimer delineates into a play, “Photograph 51,” the London production of which is garnering raves for Nicole Kidman as Rosalind Franklin at the same Lantern Theater is presenting it in Philadelphia.

Geneviève Perrier is quite good in the Lantern staging, but in watching Kathryn MacMillan’s production, one can’t help but wondering if the director missed the forest, the interesting entirety or what Ziegler has written, to concentrate on a specific tree, the struggles Rosalind Franklin faced by being a woman and a Jew in a field were both were decided minorities, particularly women.

Franklin needs writers like Ziegler and Jardine and colleagues like Wilkins and Crick to speak for her because, unlike the gentlemen from King’s and Cambridge, she did not live to receive the Nobel Prize for biology bestowed on them or to have the chance to refute or present her side about anything Watson said in print. The Nobel is not given posthumously, and Watson, I’m sure, was spared a tongue lashing or worse by Franklin dying at age 37 ten years before “The Double Helix” was published.

Ziegler speaks quite eloquently. Her portrait of Franklin may center on her almost anal dedication to X-Ray crystallography to examine the DNA molecule in detail via numerous photos, the eponymous Photograph 51 (which I’m looking at as I write) being the one that cracked the mystery (although Watson gleaned that before Franklin, creating one of science’s and Ziegler’s sources of drama and debate), but Ziegler also takes care to note Franklin’s love of the theater, particularly Shakespeare, and her ability to be social, to go out and have dinner or visit friends, that run counter to the serious, obsessive, possessive, non-collegial person we see in the King’s College lab.

Ziegler leavens Rosalind in a way Perrier and MacMillian do not, and that skews Lantern’s “Photograph 51,” turning it into an historic piece or treatise on the extra burden saddled on women in science instead of the complete, further reaching, more fulfilling mise en scene Ziegler provides when you consider her whole play rather than the bits of the script MacMillan elected to emphasize.

The Lantern’s is a stunted “Photograph 51.” It plays respectably enough, but it becomes as single-minded in tone and intent as Perrier and MacMillan’s one-note, lugubrious depiction of Franklin. It converts a play about a group of people, an event, and the process that leads to it into a centrally focused look at Franklin and how she was given short shrift by who else? — Men! Poor thing.

Rosalind Franklin becomes an emblem instead of one part of a story in which she is undeniably important. Her femininity becomes an overriding them when it, too, is one theme among several. Yes, Rosalind, her work, and her treatment of and by her colleagues, is a major aspect of Ziegler’s play, but it’s the not the only aspect or the most critical. The look at post-war science, the rush to work in microbiology, and the way scientists work together to come up with a monumental result, something that repeats throughout scientific history from Archimedes’s days to ours, is all encompassed in “Photograph 51.” Only not on the Lantern stage.

It isn’t that MacMillan’s production is wrong or off-base. It’s that’s it complete. Watching it, I didn’t see a story, one I know well, unfolding but points being made. The whole of “Photograph 51” was being eclipsed by significant, but partial, element of it, and from a theatrical point of view, it dulled the proceeding. The Lantern’s “Photograph 51” never achieved the grandeur or sweep I saw in Ziegler’s general script. Franklin’s isolated story was bogging it down. And Geneviève Perrier seemed resolute in making Franklin harsh and sullen, as opposed to proud and untrusting. There was no color to the character, no reason to root for her even if you thought she was experiencing discrimination as a woman or a Jew.

Especially since in Ziegler’s script, when the odd misogynist and anti-Semitic comment occurs, it’s made in passing. Yes, it refers to Franklin, but it is more an incidental bit of crudeness rather than an aspersion about her work, or even her person. Franklin also makes comments about males. In the politically correct present, we are supposed to be shocked and disapproving of any discriminatory remark, and while the ones made by Watson or Wilkins are incidental and made from exasperation of Franklin, not from any hatred or disrespect engendered by her person or work. Although working on an equal level with a woman may be new to the men, and subject to their ordinary comments and humor about colleagues, Franklin’s ability as a scientist is never questioned and always respected.

MacMillan took matter-of-fact bad manners as a cri de guerre and hardened the beginning of her production because of it.

Perrier doesn’t help. Her take on Rosalind is one-dimensional. Yes, Franklin was known for being difficult. Yes, she preferred to keep her research to herself was barely collegial with Wilkins, let alone the rival Watson and Crick. Yes, she was compulsive dedicated to her work and thought of little else. But she is also a human, a person, a woman. The heaviness and snobbery with which Perrier endows Rosalind would make her disagreeable to anyone. Perrier is all disdain. She leaves no avenue to break through. She is so consistent in making Rosalind into hard-headed Hannah, there’s no effect when Rosalind’s outrage at the men, as scientists, is warranted. It’s all one of a single sour piece. It isn’t that Perrier has to be soft. That would go too far in the opposite direction. It’s that she has to be supple, businesslike, private, and unlikely to chat or become chummy but supple in her manner and able, on the right occasion, to loosen and be less monolithic.

Perrier gives Rosalind no space. Even in late scenes, in which she accepts the friendship of a young assistant, there’s something about Perrier’s performance that keeps Rosalind more pinched than necessary.

Throughout this review, I must remind that because of its interesting subject matter, Lantern’s “Photograph 51” may suit a lot of tastes. I has gotten relatively good response and was extended a week to allow for more audience. I found it dragged, and as I listened, I determined its sluggishness came from MacMillan of tying too many equally crucial parts of the play to Rosalind’s story and attitude. Lantern’s “Photograph 51” plays as if all comes from Rosalind’s point of view while, as you read through the lines, you realize it’s a third person narration about an event in which Rosalind Franklin played one critical role.

Possibly the most critical. As a crystallographer, Franklin was tantamount to the great scientific adventures who made their discoveries through microscopes and telescopes in the 18th and 19th centuries. She could look through a lens at microbiological structures and choose the one she wanted to photograph for further study. Both she and Maurice Wilkins worked in this field while Watson and Crick, at Cambridge were biochemists who knew the value of X-ray diffraction photography. Watson had worked with Linus and Peter Pauling at Cal Tech and would attempt some diffraction photography when he got to Cambridge.

Rosalind Franklin already had the image science needed to crack DNA structure. The situation was she didn’t know it. As depicted in “Photograph 51,” Franklin preferred to work alone in a vacuum, jealously guarding data she gathered and sharing information with Wilkins when she thought it necessary or critical in terms of advancing their work and beating other scientists to the DNA mystery.

Wilkins, being an equal partner to Franklin, had some access to her photographs. Unlike Rosalind, he was happily part of a larger scientific community that included Watson and Crick. On a day when Watson was visiting Wilkins at King’s College, Wilkins showed him some of Franklin’s photographs. Watson immediately spotted something Wilkins and Franklin didn’t recognize. He saw in Photograph 51 the solution to the DNA conundrum. In an act of competition, he did not yell “Eureka!” and reveal his excitement to Wilkins. He kept his counsel until he could speak to Crick, with whom he had been daily discussing DNA structure for more than a year. Franklin had already correctly hypothesized what Watson and Crick would prove, but she was unconvinced that her surmise was accurate and wanted to take the time to examine more data and collect more evidence.

In “Photograph 51,” Ziegler or MacMillan has Watson take the photograph Wilkins hands him and stuff it in the folds of a newspaper. Not true. Watson did reproduce Franklin’s photo, but by drawing it on the margins of his newspaper, not by taking it.

It is in the scenes between Watson and Crick, and between Watson and Wilkins that we see breadth Ziegler gives “Photograph 51.” Rosalind might be the most interesting and complex person on stage, but Ziegler is depicting how science has operated for centuries. Scientists are known for their openness. Sure, all potential discoverers want to be the first to unearth the Grail, but work is often compared, discussed, and shared. Watson was a little more ambitious and rambunctious than scientists before him, but he would give Franklin due credit once he hastened to test and confirm what his eye caught that she didn’t. Watson may have been an opportunist, but he is not a poacher. Remember, Rosalind Franklin is listed with Watson, Crick, and Wilkins as the finder of DNA structure. The only reason she did not receive a Nobel Prize is because she was dead and Nobel rules prohibited it.

The better play in “Photograph 51” is the general play, the once about the parallel research, nominal rivalry between King’s and Cambridge, and the race to confirm and publish. Within that play, the three main figures continue to stand out. Watson and Crick are equal partners to Franklin in this drama, and Wilkins has an important role. Thinking of the three and not spotlighting the one is the key to doing justice to Ziegler’s piece. Yes, Rosalind’s is among the more dramatic stories, especially because of how her work is interrupted and her life ends. Her role, and the disregard she felt, which may have been more than the disregard she suffered, certainly give color, texture, and a strong secondary current to Ziegler’s play. At the Lantern, Kathryn MacMillan was too intent on making all about Rosalind when the to-do is about DNA and how its structure became known. In years of better finances, I would have been to London and seen the production starring Kidman. Alas, that can’t be, so I have to imagine what “Photograph 51” could have been had it been done the way Ziegler’s script seems to dictate.

I can only evaluate the work at hand, and by now, it’s clear I think MacMillan fell into the common regional theater trap of taking material too seriously or looking too much for the current political thought in it. (PTC’s “Red,” Arden’s “The History Boys,” other examples of misplaced or misunderstood emphasis.) “Photograph 51” suffered by the concentration on a legitimate but single thread of the plot at the expense of the larger play. I wanted to overcome my disappointment at finding a dismal ode to a “victimized” woman, but I found the real gist of Ziegler’s play too late to recover, so MacMillan’s production remained dull and plodding to me even when my revelation and Harry Smith’s lively portrayal of Francis Crick held out hope of redeeming it.

Geneviève Perrier was caught in the throes of MacMillan’s vision. Rosalind dominates early scenes, and Perrier set a cold and ugly tone, thrusting the alleged chip on Rosalind’s shoulder stage center and making it the basis for her entire performance and for her relationship with Joseph McGranaghan’s Maurice Wilkins.

Perrier’s Rosalind withholds giving an inch before anyone requests a millimeter. She is so defensive, she offends. Her unwillingness to work closely with or share daily findings with Wilkins registers as bitter pique rather than as a reaction to any occasion of male domination.

Ziegler is shrewd enough to make Wilkins a shade paternalistic, especially when he, the head of the department Rosalind joins, asserts a right to be the lead scientist or supervisor on the DNA studies, an attempt that not only raises Rosalind’s hackles but violates the terms of the agreement she made with King’s when she accepted her post there.

In MacMillan’s staging, the conflict, good for drama and for establishing some boundaries, is treated as a masculine assault without noting that Ziegler gave Rosalind the backbone and the dialogue to stand her ground as a colleague. She doesn’t have to be Joan of Arc. She only has to claim her ground, but it should be by way of besting Wilkins in a debate rather than by righteous, willful declaration.

Whether or not you side with Rosalind in her first tussle with Maurice, Perrier is so stern and inflexible, you can’t go beyond some admiration towards liking Rosalind. On the contrary, your sympathy goes to McGranaghan’s Maurice even though Rosalind has made some fine points and earns your respect. With Perrier maintain such a hard, unbending stance, you come to agree with Watson, Crick, and Wilkins that Rosalind won’t be invited to ride any sleighs with them, not because she’s a woman, or a Jew, but because she’s a mopey, unresponsive pain in the rectum. The resistance to cooperation or civil friendliness is so engrained and so unswerving in Perrier’s Rosalind, it becomes the only thing that is visible, the only trait that denotes who Rosalind Franklin is. Any genius, adherence to rigid standards, painstaking planning of experiments and care of data, and even gender ceases to matter. It’s in the script and taken for granted while Perrier keeps Rosalind a pouty, scowling harridan who will allow no one to get close to her.

You get the feeling that she is totally without social competence or collegiality, so it is any wonder, that in the name of speed and progress, in addition to the smarmier sense of competition, that people decide to avoid her and work around her? If Perrier were more cunning and showed Rosalind having to be firm with men in the way Carly Fiorina is with Donald Trump, if she relaxed her shoulders and showed a lighter side when she was studying her photographs alone, if she shared contentment with the way her work is heading, even with Chris Anthony’s Don Caspar, who she does trust and speak to in human tones, she may represent Rosalind’s rigidity and carefulness while fitting into the whole. As it is, Perrier’s performance, coached by MacMillan, puts the play off kilter.

Do I risk brick bats and cries that I’m a chauvinist if I say that two male performers, Harry Smith playing Crick and Trevor William Fayle playing Watson, start setting the Lantern production somewhat right?

Joseph McGlanaghan doesn’t stand a chance to leaven matters as Wilkins because he is the adversary who is sucked into the angry vacuum Perrier and MacMillan create. Smith and Fayle have advantages. They are regarded as the villains of the piece, as seen from MacMillan’s telling of the story, and they play men who are already known to be urbane, nervy, and ebullient.

At least Crick is. Known for being jovial, talkative, and enjoying spirited discussion, Crick, as played by Smith, infuses life and air into MacMillan’s production. Perhaps the director wants him to be taken as clownish to show how nonchalant Crick is in contrast to Rosalind’s oxygen-sucking earnestness.

Perhaps. But whatever MacMillan’s thoughts, Smith expresses the joy and challenge of science and discovery in a way Perrier doesn’t and McGlanaghan can’t. Here is a character who can relish research while comprehending the significance of his task at hand at balance his life at the lab with trying to make a touchy marriage work.

Smith’s Crick is the direct opposite of Perrier’s Rosalind, and his affability shows up more because of it.

It is the appearance of Smith and Fayle that awakened me to Ziegler’s intention. I saw that while Watson and Crick were supposed to be contrasts to Rosalind, all three had to be of a kind that are admired for some traits and cause suspicion for others. All the characters are meant to be as three-dimensional as Smith portrays Crick. All are supposed to have range and levels to their personality.

MacMIllan’s choices in regard to Rosalind preclude that from happening, so Watson and Crick come off as the Fezziwigs of ‘Photograph 51,” reveling in life and they revel in research and the brink of discovering something monumental.

It isn’t that there should be less contrast but that the contrast be more subtle. Ziegler sets up “Photograph 51” so you should root for and back the professional behavior of Rosalind. The wealth of animation Smith and Fayle bring to the Lantern stage makes you worry that Rosalind will be ignored once Crick and Watson publish their findings while making these characters welcome for giving MacMillan’s “Photograph 51” a pulse.

Trevor William Fayle, his hair fluffed up in Watson’s flyaway style, adds to the exuberance. He doesn’t play Watson’s natural reserve but comes across as a hungry, competitive, and possibly unscrupulous person who wants the credit for explaining DNA structure as much as he wants to give his treasure of a discovery to science.

Fayle provides a quieter but more excited energy than Smith. He makes Watson alive with anticipation of great events to come. He shows the enthusiasm of the scientist while conveying the cunning and perspicacity to know when an important breakthrough has been reached. Fayle’s expression when Watson looks a Photograph 51 tells you all you need to know about earth-shaking Rosalind’s research has become. Watson not sharing what he sees with Wilkins, or trying to summon an already ill Rosalind to her lab, adds to the drama, and Fayle is good at showing a man who must entertain and speak calmly to Wilkins when he’s yearning to get on the next train to Cambridge to tell Crick about the photograph and share his drawing with him.

Chris Anthony is excellent as Don Caspar, who serves as a raisonneur and a link between Rosalind and general humanity when he arrives in England to work as Rosalind’s assistant after corresponding with her and asking her questions as he vied for his advanced degree at Cal Tech, from which he also knew James Watson.

Anthony leavens MacMIllan’s production in a different way from Smith or Fayle but being a calm, congenial presence who also knows to elicit normal social responses from Rosalind. Harry Watermeier is crisp efficiency itself as the student, Ray Gosling, who worked most closely with Rosalind and who protected her records and data. Watermeier participates in scenes unobtrusively, showing the discipline and standards Rosalind Franklin would demand.

Meghan Jones’s makes all seem intimate while making fine use of various sections of the Lantern stage. Janus Stefanowicz is precise in her outfitting of the scientists, including Anthony’s Caspar and Watermeier’s Gosling.

“Photograph 51” runs through Sunday, October 18, at the Lantern Theater, adjacent to St. Stephen’s Church at 10th and Ludlow Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. (A 2 p.m. matinee is also scheduled for Wednesday, October 7.) Tickets range from $39 to $34 with available discounts and can be obtained by calling 215-829-0395 or by visiting www.lanterntheater.org.

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