When I worked at the University of Minnesota’s College of Biological Sciences, I was highly influenced by a book that described the very human and personal process that fosters scientific process: the physical laboratory space is the “home,” and the head of the laboratory is the parent; the seeds of knowledge are passed down to the graduate students — the “next generation” — and nurtured in the lab.
When those grad students have their own laboratories, the process continues and is passed down. The best and most creative scientists — those who go on to win Nobel prizes — all are products of this culture and process.
In the case of Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51, running now through Nov. 4 at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, the laboratory family is brilliant, though highly dysfunctional. The “father” is Dr. Maurice Wilkins, played with a perfect blend of uptight British pride along with the questionable charm of an absent-minded professor by Bob Malos. He and his graduate student “son” Ray Gosling, performed in the classic gracioso style by Brandon Ewald, are moving along slowly but surely in their insular biochemical world until they are joined by the brilliant and attractive Jewish crystallographer Dr. Rosalind Franklin, brought to life with exceptional emotional control by Bethany Ford.
Franklin, already a recognized expert in her field, expects to be a co-parenting laboratory mother, free to conduct her experiments independent of Wilkins while still mentoring Gosling. But the prejudices of the culture and the times are constantly working against her.
How can Wilkins acknowledge work that overshadows his own when Franklin is both a woman and a Jew? Can teamwork develop between antagonistic rivals? Even the arrival of the young Jewish American scientist Don Casper (Alex Brightwell) in the lab does nothing to meld the group. Is he a “son” to Franklin, or a possible rival to “father” Wilkins?
Add to this the not-so-friendly rivalry between Wilkins and two young upstarts at Cambridge University: James Watson (Dustin Bronson) and Francis Crick (Wade A. Vaughn). Watson and Crick are portrayed as brilliant scientists, but are also presented so that I couldn’t decide if they were egghead versions of Bert and Ernie, or evil fraternal twins — Muppets Statler and Waldorf, looking down at the action from their theatre balcony who make snide remarks about Franklin’s looks and religion.
But it was their teamwork, their attitudes and their aggressiveness that garnered them the Nobel Prize — denying it to Franklin.
What Watson and Crick have in their lab that Wilkins and Franklin lack in theirs is true teamwork, with a strong cup of cutthroat competition thrown in for good measure. They are willing to throw ethics to the wind for the sake of their own aggrandizement and eventual enrichment.
What does it matter to them that they use purloined information, especially if it comes from a woman and a Jew, if they are advancing science — and themselves?
Playwright Ziegler takes for granted that her audience has some knowledge of DNA and its role in animal and human life. MJTC helpfully projects the actual photographs of DNA onto upstage screens; this is a welcome tool for the audience. Costume Designer Lisa Conley expertly captured the tweedy-but-rumpled look of academic scientists of the early 1950s who care more about what DNA looks like than they do about their own appearance.
Warren C. Bowles is making his directorial debut with MJTC in Photograph 51. He is highly respected for his work at Mixed Blood Theatre, Park Square Theatre and other venues. While not a Nobel Prize winner like Watson, Crick and Wilkins, Bowles did receive a McKnight Fellowship in 2005.
“I first heard about Photograph 51 and Rosalind Franklin while listening to ‘Science Friday’ on National Public Radio and I was intrigued with this true story,” Bowles said. “So I was thrilled when Barbara Brooks approached me to direct it here.”
Recognizing his deficiencies in the world of academic science, Bowles met with several biologists to prepare for this production.
“After talking with them and doing other research into scientific discoveries after World War II, it’s hard for me to imagine a world without the benefits that these scientists brought to humanity,” he said.
Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company opens its 2012-2013 season with the regional premiere of Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler. The play is running through Nov. 4 at the Hillcrest Center Theater, 1978 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul. For tickets and information, call 651-647-4315 or visit: www.mnjewishtheatre.org.