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Ignoble Nobel

Fascinating Photograph 51 at LTW dissects the dark side of the race to identify DNA

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For about six months when I was 12, maybe 13, I was obsessed with DNA, which I discovered in a paperback book I read over and over again.

The wonder and mystery of the molecule thrilled me and made me the most obnoxious kid in Graham County. I didn't understand deoxyribonucleic acid, of course, but I loved saying deoxyribonucleic acid.

Is it any wonder that I loved Photograph 51, a fascinating drama at Live Theatre Workshop that made me fall for the double helix all over again? Anna Ziegler's play tells the story of Rosalind Franklin (Lori Hunt), a scientist who didn't get much credit for her role in discovering the structure of DNA.

In a brisk 90 minutes, Photograph 51 brings into focus the brilliant Rosalind—sorry, Dr. Franklin—and her meticulous work in the male-dominated labs of the early 1950s.

The play covers the unhappy couple of years she worked at King's College London with senior researcher Maurice Wilkins (Brian Wees). They got off on the wrong foot and never really got along.

"You don't have to try to win me over," she informs him. "In fact, you shouldn't try to win me over because you won't succeed. I'm not that type of person."

The type of person depicted on stage and largely supported by those who knew her was prickly, superior and not given to small talk. She was quick to find offense, but then again, it sure wasn't hard to find.

Her specialty—indeed, her obsession—was X-ray diffraction photography. After countless failed attempts, she captured an image of a DNA strand that revealed its double-helical structure. Wilkins, without her knowledge, showed Franklin's "Photo 51" to James Watson (Nick Trice), a rival researcher who was among those racing to identify the structure of DNA.

Watson, who immediately recognized the enormous significance of Franklin's picture, used it to scoop the King's College team. He and his partner, Francis Crick, (Steve McKee) published their game-changing paper with precious little acknowledgement of Franklin or of her assistant, Ray Gosling (Matt Brown).

Franklin, known for her rigorous methodology and pathological aversion to assumptions, did not share the Nobel Prize won in 1962 by Watson, Crick and Wilkins. She died of ovarian cancer in 1958 at the age of 37.

Hunt, a veteran Tucson actor, holds the LTW show together with her smart, no-nonsense performance as the smart, no-nonsense Franklin. Hunt avoids any temptation to soften the woman's hard edges. And because she allows not a shred of sentimentality to worm its way into her portrayal, the play's emotional impact sneaks up on the audience. When we finally get a glimpse of Franklin's vulnerability, it's powerful stuff.

Hunt's performance is emblematic of the entire show. Under the direction of Sabian Trout, now in her eighth year as artistic director of LTW, Photograph 51 respects our intelligence from beginning to end. The heartfelt payoff, when it comes, is well earned.

You'll likely learn a few things along the way, but don't get the wrong idea from my description. This is not a humorless, pedantic, take-your-medicine experience.

Trice earns plenty of laughs with an inventive, exacting performance as Watson, who shoots a withering look in Franklin's direction every chance he gets. Among other things, his performance emerges as the best argument for colorblind casting I've seen since his last performance (as the romantic lead in Winding Road's Cabaret).

Matthew Copley is equally effective as Don Casper, a researcher who is dazzled by Franklin's photography and says so in a series of letters to her. When the two finally meet in person, it's more than just a meeting of beautiful minds. Their shared experience as Jews in a world still reeling from World War II is mostly unspoken but very real.

Everyone in the ensemble handles the sometimes difficult material with apparent ease. Although the lighting is a disaster, the rest of the production design serves the cast reasonably well. The actors' efforts are neatly complemented by projections of historical photos.

When we finally see a picture of the real Franklin, a scientist who didn't know that she should have been in a hurry, the effect is astonishing. We feel like we know this woman, and we feel her loss.

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