Pictured: Amy Attaway and Robert Gibby Brand. Photo by Bob Paisley.
Review: PHOTOGRAPH 51 at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre
By Abigail Trabue
Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre’s production of PHOTOGRAPH 51 is only the second time in my life I’ve left a theater, sat in my car and cried. If you are fortunate enough to be moved to tears by theater, then you are fortunate enough to have witnessed something incredible. PHOTOGRAPH 51 is something incredible. Based on the story of scientist Rosalind Franklin (Amy Attaway) and her unrecognized contribution to the discovery of the DNA double helix, the 90 minute play by Anna Ziegler, and a regional premiere, is the strikingly subtle retelling of how Franklin’s Photo 51 spurred Dr. James Watson (John Cleary) and Dr. Francis Crick (Coleman Crenshaw) towards the DNA model, which ultimately led to their Nobel Prize, along with Franklin’s partner at Kings, Dr. Maurice Wilkins (Robert Gibby Brand), in 1962.
The story of Franklin and Photo 51 is fascinating on its own, but in the hands of this incredible ensemble, we are given layer upon layer of complex choices and relationships. Attaway plays every inch of Rosalind with deeply felt honesty and crystal clear intentions. Attaway is moving, accessible and just so damn fiery. She allows us to see how many of Rosalind’s choices are due to being a product of her time, without making her a victim of her environment. Franklin can be overbearing and harsh. She is closed off, refusing to share her work, introverted, and yet, given the opportunity to be seen as an equal you know she would be none of those things. She is constantly referred to as “Ms” instead of “Dr,” and more than once we see her worth based solely on her outward appearance.
There is this beautiful parallel drawn between a production of Shakespeare’s THE WINTER’S TALE and PHOTOGRAPH 51, and while I don’t want to give away too much, I will say this: the idea that women must be “remarkable” to be remembered is what drove me to tears as I walked out into a cold Winters night 65 years after Franklin took Photo 51. There were times during the production where I wondered if we were talking about the 1950’s or about 2017. Science vs. Religion, a woman’s right to equality, religious prejudice, all front and center during Franklin’s life are all on full display now in America.
Given the above it would have been really easy to make this a play about a heroine bullied by the big bad guys, but in the hands of Attaway, Brand, Cleary, Crenshaw, RH Wilhoit (Raymond Gosling), and Jordan Fox (Dr. Don Caspar), and under the direction of MET’s Artistic Director Karen Paisley, we get none of that. What we get instead is a complicated, honest, messy, humorous, and engaging production that fits perfectly into MET’s changeable storefront space. We get staging that is engaging, that flows seamlessly and creatively, that is motivated and clean. You see actors who’ve have formed a strong ensemble, and more than once I found myself marveling at the pace. It’s clear Paisley (who also served at lighting and set designer) understands what this play is about, the kind of hand needed to guide it, and along with Prop Designer Marc Manley and Costumer Shannon Regnier, created a world for the actors and the story of PHOTOGRAPH 51 to live in.
There’s a quote in PHOTOGRAPH 51 from THE WINTER’S TALE: “Come, poor babe, I have heard but not believed/The spirits o’ the dead may walk again.” PHOTOGRAPH 51 is the forgotten historical footnote of Rosalind Franklin and, in the hands of Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, is the kind of art we should be creating.
PHOTOGRAPH 51 runs through February 4th. For more information visit metkc.org.