Anna Ziegler’s “Photograph 51,” a play in which characters are regularly peering through microscopes, has the ironic problem of being out of focus. As a piece of history, it spends an inordinate amount of time on broadly comedic scenes of rebuffed male attention and less on the specifics of the main character’s remarkable scientific achievement. The protagonist remains a cipher, and the one possibly important relationship in her life is unexamined and feels merely like a plot device. The Fountain Theater’s West Coast premiere production, however, is polished and entertaining, and it benefits greatly from Aria Alpert’s sharp lead performance.
Many people know that James Watson (Ian Gould) and Francis Crick (Kerby Joe Grubb) won the Nobel Prize for creating a model of DNA in 1953. Unfortunately, fewer people have heard of Rosalind Franklin (Alpert), whose X-ray diffraction images were crucial to the discovery. The play follows how this happened and, to a lesser degree, why she never got the credit she deserved.
When Franklin begins working at King’s College in an unwanted partnership with Maurice Wilkins (Daniel Billet), she has to endure not only the sexism of the era but Wilkins’ friendly/romantic advances — distractions her male colleagues likely didn’t have to face.
Alpert is terrific as Franklin, full of astringent authority and tart humor, a woman in full control of herself, if not her world. Her glances speak volumes, and her unhesitating delivery of the line “You don’t command my respect” to Wilkins is quietly devastating. Billet elicits sympathy but also frustration for the unfortunate Wilkins, outshone and ignored by the object of his affection, but the specifics of what he did (supplying Watson and Crick with Franklin’s data) and why he did it are surprisingly vague here.
Watson and Crick are portrayed as mildly evil in the play, and Gould’s and Grubb’s perfs, low-key and charming with ambition churning in the background, are effective. Ross Hellwig is appealing as Franklin’s would-be love interest Casper, and Graham Norris is amusing as the reasonable Gosling, caught in the middle of Wilkins’ and Franklin’s conflict.
Director Simon Levy directs the show smoothly, segueing from straight drama to narration to the lead character’s private imaginings with admirable clarity. Attention clearly has been paid to the actors’ performances, which feel detailed in ways that don’t always come from the writing.
Ziegler deserves credit for not portraying Franklin as a spotless martyr but instead as a complicated woman, but in trying to balance the history and character study she unfortunately shortchanges both. Finally, in a concluding dream-sequence reconciliation scene between Wilkins and Franklin (which, while emotionally affecting, seems to fly in the face of the rest of the play), we’re left with the last image of Wilkins alone on the stage, sobbing, as if this is all about his tragedy. It’s not, and this serious misplacement of focus shows that Franklin still isn’t getting the credit she deserves, even in a play ostensibly about her.