“Photograph 51” Documents Credit to Trailblazing Woman
“Photograph 51” is a great example of the Great Women of Science play. An underappreciated genius woman sets off on her instinctual path. She is undermined, condescended to, and robbed of her contributions only to emerge triumphantly vindicated, if only by our paying witness to her history by attending.
“Photograph 51” by Anna Ziegler is being given an incisive production at The Unicorn Stage directed by David Auburn, presented by Berkshire Theatre Group through 7/1.
In the case of “Photograph 51,” the Grail is the discovery of DNA and its role in the life cycle and the great woman is Rosalind Franklin, who photographed DNA’s structure played by the great actress Rebecca Brooksher. The play is set in the early 50s which are exquisitely represented by Elivia Bovenzi Blitz’s bespoke suits, and opens with Rosalind leaving Paris and transferring to King’s College.
Her scientific pursuits are threatened immediately upon arrival by Dr. Maurice Wilkins, played by BTG regular David Adkins (“The Goat,” “The Petrified Forest”), who somehow gets better and better with every passing year. Wilkins is another fine portrait in his gallery of conflicted intellectuals who goes from priggish assumed dominance to heartbroken acolyte.
Wilkins opens the play with direct address to the audience and the male dominance of the scientific field is made virtual by her telling of the story through the five men in the cast. The set by Bill Clarke, lit by Daniel J. Kotlowitz, looks like the stage of a microscope as the characters step onto it for our inspection. The movements, scene changes and witnesses observing the action are elegantly intentional in David Adkins’ superior staging.
Brandon Dial plays the sweet, supportive Ray Gosling, who is the literal go-between in the office between Franklin and Wilkins, at one point repeating their conversation to each other when they cannot bear through angered pride to speak to each other. Shaun Anthony is an American admirer and doctoral candidate who will eventually find his way into Rosalind’s lab and heart.
The competition is represented by Francis Crick, an opportunistic Christian Coulson, and his partner James Watson pled by Allen Tedder. Tedder is a great discovery in this play of inquiry. Tall and lanky with a honking voice and a sculptural bush of a hairdo which is much remarked upon, he elicits the most welcome laughs throughout the play without ever making his character a figure of fun. He is a true original that thoroughly conveys the fun of the nerdish halls of academia.
Rebecca Brooksher is unrecognizable and impressively powerful as Dr. Rosalind Franklin. This enchanting actor, who has used her feminine allure most convincingly as Anna Christie and Maggie the Cat here, dominates the stage with her intellectual pursuit and ramrod backbone of courage in the face of all discrimination. It is an electrifying performance of a most attractive mind motivating her actions.
The Pulitzer Prize (“Proof”) winning playwright David Auburn, who was represented on Broadway this past season with “Summer, 1976” starring Jessica Hecht and Laura Linney, continues his stellar string of hits as Associate Artistic Director with Berkshire Theatre Group. His resume reveals him to be one of the most reliably entertaining and interesting directors working locally. He frequently directs sturdy classics like the aforementioned collaborations with Rebecca Brooksher, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” or “A Delicate Balance.” Still, I’m very glad that this overlooked 15-year-old play is finally getting its Regional Premiere in Mr. Auburn’s very talented hands. We are fortunate to have such a theatrical light repeatedly gracing our summer season.
“Photograph 51” is one of those plays that makes me feel smarter for having seen it, even if I don’t understand much of it. I’m sure my father would be happy that I enjoy this play and its setting so much, especially after failing biology in 10th grade. The play does go quite a few minutes past the intermissionless 90-minute sweet spot, but the standing ovation is hearty and well-deserved.
“Photograph 51” plays through 7/1 at The Unicorn Theatre. www.BerkshireTheatreGroup.org