Shattering the glass ceiling, a phrase often inundating the media to praise women blazing a trail in their field—and a phrase decades out from its coining to describe situations just like Rosalind Franklin’s getting shafted in the accreditation of the discovery of the DNA double helix—perfectly describes Central Square Theater’s spring show.
Anna Zeigler’s award-winning production Photograph 51, directed by Rebecca Bradshaw, zeroes in on Franklin’s struggle to make herself heard in the science community of the early 1950s, continually overshadowed by men who were all too eager to theorize yet unwilling to give a woman colleague any credit for her contribution to their work. Impeccably cast and thoughtfully staged, Stacy Fischer captures Franklin’s often trampled-on expertise and understated femininity as she stared down condescension in a lab she was quietly unwelcome in.
Ziegler allows little room for misinterpretation: The sexism and towering egos of her fellow scientists held Franklin back, despite her best efforts to shut out their criticisms. The names on the Nobel Prize, Watson, Crick, and Wilkins, belong to the three men upholding the longstanding tradition of science as a boys’ club. Depicted as spending far less time in the lab than Franklin did, the men were more interested in being the first to publish what they thought the structure of DNA was than they were with the discovery itself—a trait that led to many of their disputes with Franklin.
In Ziegler’s production, they are portrayed as devious: When they aren’t lurking in the shadows just offstage, they can be heard mocking both Franklin’s appearance and perseverance, reducing her to just a feminine form. Watson (Michael Underhill), referring to her as “a cypher where a woman should be,” avoids addressing his fear of failure. And his relationship with Crick (John Tracey) makes for an odd duo reminiscent of a tyrannical Abbott and Costello.
Though this show covers one historical event, the story is far from one-note. Ziegler speaks to a larger societal problem, one that the #MeToo movement has only scratched the surface of. Peppered throughout the production are references to the eternal struggles of women, reflected in Franklin’s personal battle to define herself as a scientist—not first, but in tandem with her womanhood.
Her struggle as a woman in a male-dominated field drove her to isolate herself, so much so that it left her vulnerable to the thievery of the misdirected Watson and Crick: their infamous model based on her uncredited X-ray image of the DNA sample. Her need for perfection and avoidance of the underdeveloped hypotheses of her antagonists are seen as her downfall by those same men in the lab, but her idiosyncratic mind is what got her singularly closer to discovering the structure of DNA than anyone ever had been.
The cast, set design, and thoughtful dialogue work flawlessly to convey a poignant and powerful message of regret, opportunity, and unbridled strength.
PHOTOGRAPH 51. THROUGH 4.15 AT THE NORA THEATRE COMPANY AT CENTRAL SQUARE THEATRE, 450 MASS. AVE., CAMBRIDGE. CENTRALSQUARETHEATRE.ORG