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Perhaps the one topic more beloved to playmakersthan playmakers themselves is the tragic tale of a solitary unsung hero, and few heroes would seem to have been more unsung and more inclined toward the solitary than Rosalind Franklin. A prickly researcher who toiled in the labs of King’s College in the wake of World War II, she obsessively pursued hard data on the structure of DNA. She found it, too—and the tale of how the names Watson and Crick would come to be more associated than hers with that discovery is central to Photograph 51; the production takes its title from a breakthrough image Franklin captured with the X-ray camera that was both her greatest tool and her probable executioner. (She died of ovarian cancer at 37.)
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If Anna Ziegler’s efficient 95-minute biodrama feels a little let’s-tell-a-story in its dramaturgy, and if its conversations get once or twice a little fact-and-figure-ish, the playwright still puts plenty of flesh on her tale’s bones. Better, Daniella Topol’s warm and personable cast brings the supporting characters—an intensely disagreeable Watson, a bluff, worldly Crick, and Franklin’s emotionally constipated, professionally unsupportive colleague Maurice Wilkins among them—admirably to life.
Best of all is the wonderfully convincing Elizabeth Rich, whose passion and intensity provide the story with a solid, satisfying emotional center. Her Franklin comes across as blisteringly intelligent, understandably aggrieved, frustratingly unaware of how alienating she is in her unbending seriousness, and painfully conscious of her own limits.
Did institutional sexism limit Franklin’s accomplishments? Did her own combativeness derail collaborations that might have taken her across the goal line first? Did Watson and Crick cross a line when they looked at that photo without her permission—or when a Cambridge colleague slipped them a copy of a report she’d written about its implications? Slippery questions, some still unresolved in the real world—and to its credit, Photograph 51 puts them in play but never quite insists on the answers. Like the diligent, dogged Franklin, it insists on precision and declines to draw more conclusions than the data supports—and like her, it’s worth an admiring tip of the hat.