Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51 made its New York debut a decade ago, produced by Ensemble Studio Theatre, but it largely went unnoticed until Nicole Kidman chose it as the vehicle for her return to the West End in 2015.
Since then, this story of science and sexism has become a regional theater mainstay, although it has yet to receive a staging equal in prestige to Kidman’s London stand. Williamstown Theatre Festival’s planned production, helmed by Susan Stroman and starring Anna Chlumsky, would have changed that. Instead, it becomes the festival’s second experiment in audio theater through its partnership with Audible.
Stroman and Chlumsky, along with a notable company of stage veterans, give voice to the life and legacy of Rosalind Franklin, a gifted chemist whose career was undermined by gender bias and whose life was cut short by cancer. Franklin was instrumental in discovering the structure of DNA, although until recent years, her name was not as prominent as her male colleagues. Ziegler’s biographical drama interrogates this erasure, while also considering what women endure to achieve a modicum of respect in the worlds of research and scholarship.
Clocking in at a brisk ninety minutes, Photograph 51 is informative, occasionally droll, and ultimately sympathetic to its subject. Ziegler employs the form of a memory play, with famous scientists like Maurice Wilkins (Omar Metwally), James Watson (David Corenswet), and Francis Crick (Aasif Mandvi) recalling Franklin’s formidable intellect and chilly personality after her death. The suggestion stands that her lack of warmth and conviviality impacted her career prospects, as well as the visibility of her contributions to the field. (The play’s title refers to a landmark image she captured of the double helix.)
Franklin’s refusal to conform to the expectations of men, and the professional degradation she suffered for it, will be familiar to generations of women who are still told they must be ingratiating and likeable to advance their careers.
The script doesn’t solely focus on Franklin’s devaluation. Ziegler also makes her brilliance clear. In Chlumsky’s opening narration—performed in a clipped English accent so convincing I momentarily wondered if I’d misread the casting notice—she charts Rosalind’s course from precocious child to dogged researcher, a girl obsessed with drawing “patterns of the tiniest repeating structures” to a woman who saw in those structures what everyone in the play calls “the secret of life.”
She is unapologetically smart and unwilling to dumb down her intellect to stroke anyone’s ego. Her strong will remains evident even as the doors to the scientific boys’ club are largely closed to her, at a time when women were barred from dining with their male peers at university clubs (even when they held high academic ranks). She is often called “Miss,” rather than “Doctor.” She is further othered by her Jewishness in a world where Anglicanism is the default.
Even in an audio-only context, Chlumsky turns in a compassionate, layered performance that communicates Rosalind’s dedication to her life’s work—as well as a lust for life that occasionally mystifies her prickly associates. She might seem cold and reserved to her compatriots, but she comes alive inside the laboratory, fueled by the fire of discovery.
She is also warm and appreciative toward those who don’t condescend to her gender, like Don Casper (a superb Stephen Kunken), an American graduate student who recognizes Rosalind’s singular talent. Her zeal is especially poignant when it becomes clear that adverse effects of radiation used to capture the pivotal photograph may have caused (or, at least, contributed to) the ovarian cancer that ended her life at only thirty-seven.
The other performers offer similarly strong interpretations. Metwally has to handle the script’s one major miscalculation—the suggestion that Wilkins carried an unrequited torch for Franklin, which, as far as I can tell, is not based in fact—yet he does so with style, and doesn’t let the puppy love plotline disguise his character’s chauvinistic streak. Mandvi is begrudgingly circumspect, Corenswet appropriately repellant (A breakout star this year on the Netflix series Hollywood, he has the makings of a fine stage actor.) Ben Rosenfeld rounds out the cast as Ray Gosling, a browbeaten doctoral candidate, to which he brings a boyish charm.
Unlike A Streetcar Named Desire, the first Audible-Williamstown audio project, which seemed listless without a visual component, Photograph 51 works well as radio theater. Ziegler favors direct-address narration, which can come across as flat in a traditional production, but which hits the ear nicely here. The round-robin style of storytelling results in a certain sense of unreliability that Stroman uses to build tension. Whose memory is correct, and how much does it matter?
There is perhaps a bit too much underscoring, the kind of jittery piano and pizzicato strings that call to mind a late-90s prestige picture. (Darron L. West composed the soundtrack.) As with Streetcar, the actual sound design, which West also provided, is far more vivid and engrossing than its musical counterpart, creating the world of the laboratory through clanking typewriters, mussing papers, slamming doors, and images captured.
Just as the historical Photograph 51 unlocked a key component in our collective understanding of human biology, Ziegler’s play provides a necessary portrait of a woman undervalued by history, whose time for recognition and acclaim has finally come. Rosalind Franklin cannot be brought back to life—just as she firmly rebukes Wilkins, in a discussion of The Winter’s Tale, for believing that Hermione is literally revived at the end of Shakespeare’s play. But her legacy can be reanimated and remembered through compelling art, as it is here.