Quick, name a famous female physicist. OK, besides Marie Curie. Sadly, the name Rosalind Franklin doesn’t spring readily to mind. But it should, since Ms. Franklin did the crucial work that led to the discovery of the structure of dioxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the very building blocks of life.
The fascinating story of Ms. Franklin’s grueling research, carried out in spite of the carping and ridicule of her male colleagues, is told exquisitely in Anna Ziegler’s new play “Photograph 51,” currently on stage at one of the very best theatres in Los Angeles: The Fountain. Impeccably directed by The Fountain’s Simon Levy, the play stars Aria Alpert as the driven, competitive, and morbidly secretive Rosalind Franklin, whose work, apparently, was all-consuming.
Franklin was born in 1920, in an era when a particularly brilliant girl, if she wanted to be popular, had to be smart enough to pretend to be dumb. Later, when women were struggling to be accepted in a man’s world, the axiom was that a woman needed to be twice as competent and twice as clever as a man just to stay in the game.
Franklin’s goal was never to be popular. (The fact that she was humorless, socially awkward and Jewish, in addition to her intellectual brilliance, probably didn’t help, either.) Rather, as she wrote to her father in 1940, “By doing our best we shall come nearer to success and that success in our aims (the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future) is worth attaining.”
Playwright Ziegler’s portrayal seems to reflect some of the disparaging opinions expressed by James Watson in his popular 1968 memoir, “The Double Helix,” in which he presented Franklin as a bad-tempered, arrogant bluestocking who jealously guarded her data from colleagues, even though, he claimed, she was not competent to interpret it. This caricature of Franklin was met with the protests of those who had worked with her, including Maurice Wilkins and Watson’s collaborator Francis Crick, who admitted that Franklin had been only two steps away from producing the solution that he, Watson, and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize for in 1962. Franklin’s friend, Anne Sayre, subsequently (in 1975) published a biography in angry rebuttal to Watson’s account, and Franklin’s role in the discovery became better known.
In fact, Ziegler’s account makes very clear that Watson and Crick built their Nobel Prize-winning model of the structure of DNA only after having seen Franklin’s “Photograph 51,” one of a series that foreshadowed the construction of their model in the first place. If Franklin had been a little bolder in her hypotheses and taken the risk of building a model based on her hunches, rather than hesitating until she had thoroughly proven the validity of her work, she undoubtedly would have beaten Watson and Crick to the Nobel. And especially her treacherous colleague Wilkins, who was responsible for passing her “Photograph 51” to her professional rivals.
It may be that the self-aggrandizing Watson was still aggrieved at having been rejected when he had applied for a job in Franklin’s lab at King’s College in London. And Wilkins may still have been smarting from her personal treatment of him: he had anticipated working with her on the DNA photography that he was already engaged in, but apparently this collaboration had never been communicated to her, and so she brushed him off like a buzzing mosquito.
In all fairness to the men involved, however, the ambitious Watson, played with bouncing enthusiasm by Ian Gould, the stolid Crick, played with very British earnestness by Kerby Joe Grubb, and the slightly goofy and awkward Wilkins, played by Daniel Billet, seemed to have cause for their antipathy toward this “uppity” woman. In a time when women were expected to defer to the men around them, Rosalind Franklin lived by her own rules: working unceasingly, but slowly and methodically, seemingly unconcerned about the scientific “race” her male colleagues were engaged in. She was not collegial, or even friendly, did not know how to make small talk or interact with people socially, and even though she was an extremely attractive woman, by the age of 36 she had, admittedly, never been out on a date. She died of ovarian cancer in 1958, shortly before her 38th birthday.
Despite her prickly personality and personal tragedies, director Simon Levy has presented her as a rich and sympathetic character. And the men around her, treacherous as they might have been, are also presented with sympathy and understanding. Further, what might have become a fairly static recitation about a complex and barely comprehensible scientific subject is rendered enthrallingly exciting with the help of Travis Gale Lewis’ innovative set design and Kathi O’Donohue’s dramatic lighting.
You may not understand every nuance of their work, but you can’t help but be caught up in their passions and their drama. “Photograph 51” is an important slice of history, beautifully acted and intriguingly presented. An exciting adventure all around.
“Photograph 51” will continue at the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave. (at Normandie) in Los Angeles Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through May 3. Call (323) 663-1525 for tickets.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.