Photograph 51

Photograph 51

Photograph 51
By Anna Ziegler
Directed by Denise Gilman
Starring Jennifer Christa Palmer and Steven Lane
Mad Cow Theatre, Orlando FL

I had this professor once who told us how he ALMOST discovered the tunable dye laser. That near miss parallels the career of Rosalind Franklin (Palmer). She was an expert in x-ray crystallography, a method used to determine the exact structure of complex molecules like proteins and DNA. She left brutalized but tolerant Paris after the war to work at King’s College with Dr. Wilkins (Lane). But what he promised and what he delivered are two different things, she thought she would lead her own research while he expects here to make tea and take pretty pictures. Basically, he’s a patronizing pratt, and this poisons a relation that could have been brilliant. He even secretly shares one of her prize images (the titular “Photograph 51”) with upstarts Francis Crick (Scott Browning) and the wild haired American James Watson (Adam Riley). These boys make guesses, build incorrect models and win the Nobel; she takes the time to get everything right and quadruple check results and dies of ovarian cancer from careless use of X-rays. It’s a love story that never quite catches fire.

Along with the spectacular cast, this show does the best job I’ve seen of how the scientific process works. It’s not all “Aha!” and “Oho!”; there are unending and thankless years of collecting data that may or may not matter. Then there are the professional rivalries, the make and break friendships, the benefits and dangers of collaboration all of which are on par with the misogamy, anti-Semitism and sexual frustration displayed. It’s like real life, but with more maths. Lane is the saddest; he never believes he’s done anything socially wrong even as the audience groans at his social blunders. He insists on being called “DOCTOR Wilkes” but only calls her “Miss” Franklin; he only says “Doctor” Franklin when he has no other choice. Admittedly, women were virtually unheard of in Physics and Math in 1940, but he could be a bit more graceful.

Then there are the lower classes, including the perpetual student Gosling (Ryan Kim). He narrates and does the dirty work; he’s treated as badly because he has yet to defend a thesis. The closest Franklin gets to love is American Don Caspar (Peter Travis); he’s properly respectful and interested enough in her to keep a flame burning. Watson and Crick are a sort of physics comedy team, they’re brash and bold and willing to take risks; their important contribution is making an incorrect model, publish it and still surviving professionally. And that’s how knowledge proceeds: take data, make guesses, talk about them publically, and correct the errors. No errors here tonight, this show is brilliant all on its own.

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