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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 15, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 7
Photograph 51 is worth more than 1,000 words
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Photograph 51 is worth more than 1,000 words

by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

PHOTOGRAPH 51
SEATTLE REPERTORY THEATRE
Through March 10


When all the elements of a production come together - the script, the directing, the acting, and the technical elements - it's a truly wonderful night of theater. Such is the case for Seattle Rep's production of Photograph 51, an intriguing biography of a largely unrecognized woman scientist, Rosalind Franklin (1920-58). Franklin's work in crystallography was able to document for the first time that DNA has the structure of a double helix, yet she was not given proper international credit for her groundbreaking work.

Franklin had a lot going against her, in her short life. She was a female scientist at a time when women were often not even allowed to study science, much less practice in the field. She was Jewish and living in Europe right after World War II, where anti-Semitism may also have played a role in hindering her career. She was prickly and a bit standoffish, which is contrary even today to the way women are "supposed' to behave, and while the play gives good evidence for why her guardedness might have been justified, it also suggests ways in which it might have worked against her. Also, she died of ovarian cancer at age 37 - a cancer that may well have been connected with her photographic work with X-ray machines, just as Marie Curie a generation earlier had died of a cancer probably related to her work with radiation.

AN UNSUNG HEROINE
The play focuses on 1951-53, the years that brought her into the exploration of DNA, and on her work with the scientists who published the initial findings on its structure. A spare cast of six includes the three scientists who got the international credit for the discovery (Bradford Farwell as Maurice Wilkins, Benjamin Harris as the heedless, flamboyant, and slightly larcenous James Watson, and MJ Sieber as Francis Crick), as well as a lab assistant (Brian Earp) and an American grad student correspondent (Aaron Blakely).

All of these men support the brilliant Kirsten Potter, who channels Rosalind Franklin (Doctor Franklin, please) and who helps us like her even in her prickliness - we root for her as we see her missing out on opportunities to be first to publish her research. In fact, as playwright Anna Ziegler details the race to publish, the audience is led to feel competitive and tense, as if we're witnessing that race and pulling for our favorite. It's a singular achievement when we already know who "won.'

Delightful hints of romance are inserted by Ziegler, who admits that there is no real historical evidence for a love connection, but this succeeds in giving Franklin a more rounded theatrical life on stage. Potter portrays her longing for such connections in glances across the stage and in slight pauses.

ALL-AROUND AWESOME
It's a wonderful cast with no weak links at all, and a solid directorial outing for Braden Abraham. Abraham has staged the play with two sitting areas at either side where actors not currently in scenes park themselves, attentive to the drama. The play is, in essence, being narrated to the audience, so each of the players must listen to what's said and be ready to agree or disagree with the portrayal. (Having not seen the script, it's not known if this was dictated by the playwright or decided upon by the director.)

As always, technical support is top-notch from set designer Scott Bradley, costumes by Deb Trout, lighting by L.B. Morse, and sound by Matt Starritt.

Certainly, the play is educational, so it's a great one to take youngsters from age 10 or so. But it succeeds on multiple levels, and may also be one that youngsters and oldsters alike will remember with awe for years to come. For more information, go to www.seattlerep.org, or call (206) 443-2222.

Discuss your opinions with sgncritic@gmail.com or go to www.facebook.com/SeattleTheaterWriters.

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