Renaissance Theaterworks explores the life of a pioneering chemist as it presents Anna Ziegler's Photograph 51–the story of Dr. Rosalind Franklin. A driven explorer of the microscopic world of overlapping patterns is brought to the stage by the stunning energy of Cassandra Bissell.
Bissell plays a woman working on a male-dominated field. University authority pushes her in the direction of examining DNA in a lab shared with Dr. Wilkins. She’s understandably upset about this as she had expected to be working alone at the head of her own lab. Neil Brookshire is boldly fragile as Dr. Franklin's unexpected colleague Dr. Wilkins. Wilkins and Franklin get off on the wrong foot. Initial impressions echo into future engagements and before long the two are drawn into a race to discover the double helix. Their major competitors are a couple of guys at another university named Watson and Crick played with style and determination by Nick Narcisi and Trevor Rees. Narcisi plays reckless intellectual energy and enthusiasm that is tempered by the more reserved Rees. The two balance each other out in an active dynamic that is contrasted against the many obstacles (social, institutional and otherwise) between Dr. Franklin and Dr. Wilkins. Director Suzan Fete's sharp staging allows the inevitability of Watson and Crick's success to feel as heartbreaking as Franklin and Wilkins' lack thereof.
All of the action is seen through the assistance of Josh Krause in the role of Ray Gosling a PhD student working under the supervision of Dr. Franklin. His is an earthbound perspective with which to contrast the rest of the cast which is largely consistent of people who are very, very serious about very, very complex work. Gosling is shadows of the rest of us: the people who look on at those who are eternally driven to that next big discovery beyond the towering shroud of the next great mystery. Krause has no problem channeling the warmth necessary to bring the world of these intellect down to earth. Joe Picchetti rounds out the cast as American Structural Biologist Don Caspar: a charming gentleman who has fallen in love with Franklin from a distance through her work. Things get understandably more complicated as he comes to work alongside her.
Ziegler fuses the characters around each other in reflection on the life of Franklin. Dr. Franklin's colleagues speak to each other and in bits of monologue. They talk about her also to each other in the past tense as scenes from key points in her life pace through the life of a truly fascinating person. Dr. Franklin herself doesn't spend much time addressing the audience directly. She’s too lost in her work to focus much of her attention on any of the other characters either...or even her own health. There is far too much work to do for any of that. By the end of the play, the audience has finally arrived where Franklin's colleagues began: with a sense of deep appreciation for a remarkable person. The ending feels all too sudden...even if we WERE anticipating it the whole time.
Cassandra Bissell is such a marvelously strong lead as an intellectual hero. In recent memory Bissell played Sherlock Holmes with the Peninsula Players. There was a fierce and exhilarating determination about her performance there which is echoed here in yet another grippingly fierce intellect. Holmes and Dr. Franklin are completely different people, but on a raw-visceral level, Bissell’s performance here is nearly identical to her performance as Holmes in Door County this past July. I'm exceedingly okay with this. Bissell is just so endlessly cool in this kind of role. I would gladly watch her as the central intellect in a stage drama 4 times a year and never find it anything other than charming. She’s a delight even for those in an audience who might not have a terribly firm grasp of the significance of what's being covered in the show. Much of the drama around the edges might feel a bit too "sciency" for all audiences, but Bissell's appeal is universal and totally magnetic.
Renaissance Theaterworks' production of Photograph 51 runs through February 10th at The Broadway Theatre Center on 158 N. Broadway. For ticket reservations and more, visit Renaissance Theaterworks online.