DNA has become a tool of overriding importance in establishing clear-cut guilt or innocence in criminal cases. But cracking the mystery of who discovered the structure of DNA requires some detective work that relies upon far more unreliable evidence from the memories of the scientists involved.
The names that have gone down in history as having unlocked "the secret of life" are James Watson and Francis Crick, an American and Englishman working together in Cambridge, England, in the early 1950s. Watson wrote a landmark best-seller about their discovery, "The Double Helix," and they shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine with Maurice Wilkins.
But did Watson and Crick really make the discovery? Or was it based upon the work of Rosalind Franklin, a researcher in Wilkins' London lab whose photographs of the matter deep inside cells created the image that made Watson and Crick's "eureka moment" possible?
That question is the linchpin of "Photograph 51," a taut, terrific play by Anna Ziegler that's being given an engrossing and masterfully performed production by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. As in the best of historical fiction, it turns figures of the past into complex, multidimensional characters and shows how much the course of events was shaped by their intersecting personalities.
Granted, watching two teams of scientists marching toward a historic discovery may not sound like it would make for great theater, but playwright Ziegler, a talented cast and the skilled hand of director Warren Bowles make "Photograph 51" fascinating. As is appropriate for a play about figuring out what makes each individual unique, the six characterizations are vivid and layered.
At the center of it is Bethany Ford as Franklin, a headstrong, prickly, passionate scientist who deals with sexism and anti-Semitism while pushing her way into the center of the race toward a revelation. Ford offers a performance of nuance and subtlety as Franklin fights for power in her field's old boys network, softening when she finds a younger colleague who sees the same art and beauty in the work that she does.
Alex Brightwell breathes poetry into his performance as Franklin's American admirer, mentee and prospective romantic interest, while Brandon Ewald is equally strong as the engaging Everyman of a grad student who tries to smooth out conflicts in the lab.
And there are conflicts aplenty, for lab leader Wilkins and Franklin never really hit it off as he attempts to negotiate this new experience of working with a female scientist. Bob Malos is exceptional as Wilkins, conveying a conflicted man whose recollections of how things unfolded become a source of dispute between him and the other characters. They begin to battle for the role of narrator, bringing a "Rashomon"-like aspect to the drama, the events changing depending upon the perspective.
One could argue that Ziegler perhaps unfairly paints Watson and Crick as villains in this tale, rude and rowdy frat boys who openly disrespect Franklin, then steal her ideas. But Dustin Bronson and Wade Vaughn lend the duo dimensions that allow you to see the charisma that made them rock-star scientists back in the 1950s.
Watson's book about this discovery has been hailed as one of the 20th century's great works of nonfiction, demonstrating that really good writing can make a seemingly dry subject gripping. Ziegler has done the same with "Photograph 51," and this production shows what beauty can be found when outstanding writing and acting intertwine like strands of DNA.
Rob Hubbard can be reached at email@example.com.