Photograph 51 gives scientist Rosalind Franklin her due | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

Photograph 51 gives scientist Rosalind Franklin her due 

The woman who unlocked the secret of DNA tells her story in Anna Ziegler's drama.

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Michael Brosilow

Chemist and X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin's crucial contributions to discovering the double helix in DNA were largely uncredited during her too-short life. (She died of ovarian cancer—possibly caused by exposure to radiation in her work—at age 37.) Anna Ziegler's drama is a sturdy if sometimes overschematic portrait of the professional purdah Franklin endured in and out of the laboratory. (She's called "Miss" not "Doctor," and can't eat lunch with the men because the staff club doesn't allow women.)

Vanessa Stalling's deft, thoughtful staging features a stellar Chaon Cross as the suffer-no-fools Franklin. The memory-play direct-address narrative device feels a bit clunky at times, but allows us to see how the men surrounding Franklin—from her smitten-but-condescending lab supervisor, Maurice Wilkins (Nathan Hosner), to the sexist and anti-Semitic James Watson (Alex Goodrich, in fine smirking fettle)—view her. (Mostly, they're puzzled at her utter lack of interest in catering to their needs.)

We catch brief glimpses of Franklin's vulnerability only late in the play. But the importance of her work (including the titular finding that unlocked the secret of DNA) looms large in terrific projections designed by Paul Deziel that illuminate Arnel Sancianco's clever set. (Matching spiral staircases at each end suggest the double helix.) And as reports from women in labs today tell us, sexism still remains entwined in the DNA of scientific research.   v

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