Theater Review: 'Paragraph 51'

By: 
Ben Miles

“Photograph 51”debuted on London’s West End in the autumn of 2015. It starred Nicole Kidman as X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) and is the true story of her under appreciated role in the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA while employed at King’s College. The play, by Ana Ziegler, won the 2008 STAGE International Script Compitition.

Now SoCal audiences — in a meticulous 90 minute staging at Costa Mesa’s South Coast Rep — have an opportunity to learn of this mid 20th century scientific breakthrough, not only in the understanding of the struture of DNA, but also Rosalind Franklin’s essential contribution to this discovery, in a male dominated laboratory environment no less.

Under Kimberly Senior’s straightforward direction — on a raked stage (designed by Cameron Anderson), with monochromatic costuming (by Elisa Benzoni), a dim lighting motif (Jaymi Lee Smith) and a subtle sound design (Cricket Myers) — and a strong cast of six, headed by the staunch Helen Sadler as Rosalind Franklin, formidable George Ketsios as Maurice Wilkins, callow Giovanni Adams as James Watson, pensive Anil Margsahayam as Francis Crick, the sincere Josh Odsess-Rubin as Don Casper, and wide-eyed Riley Neldam as Roy Gosling, all real life characters convincingly embodied by each performer.

We see the institutional discrimination embedded in the scientific community of the era; we witness through innuendo the anti-Semitism of the day (Rosalind Franklin was Jewish); and we learn of the egotism that underscores scientific endeavors.

Unfortunately “Photograph 51” — the title refers  to the photo taken by Ray Gosling under Rosalind Franklin’s supervision that validated the helical structure of DNA and suggested the actuality of a double helix — offers more exposition than dramatic conflict and makes the hour-and-a-half seem twice as long. Though noble in effort and intent, with superb stagecraft and performances, Photo 51 is a tale best told through a biographical book.

“Photograph 51” continues through March 24 on the Julianne Argyros Stage at South Coast Rep.

SCR is located at 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, 92628.

Evening performances are Tuesday through Sundays at 7:45 p.m. Matinees are Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.

For reservations call (714) 708-5555; for online ticketing and further information visit www.scr.org.

ben@beachcomber.news

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