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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Photograph 51
Southwest Shakespeare Company
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of A Few Good Men, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Sunday in the Park with George


Kim Stephenson and Clay Sanderson
Photo by Tom McCoy
Just like the hit film Hidden Figures let the world discover the previously unknown female mathematicians behind some of the earliest successes of NASA, Anna Ziegler's terrific play Photograph 51 lets us see that the discovery of the structure of DNA was based on the findings of a female scientist named Rosalind Franklin, even though three men, including Franklin's coworker Maurice Wilkins, would share the Nobel Prize for Medicine for their efforts. Southwest Shakespeare Company presents the Arizona premiere of Ziegler's play in a simple yet sumptuous production featuring an engrossing performance by Kim Stephenson as Rosalind.

Set in England in the 1950s, the plot follows Franklin as she begins work as a researcher in Wilkins' lab, photographing images of cells in order to unlock what would come to be known as "the secret of life." Franklin and Wilkins clash, and their partnership suffers setbacks due to the fact that sexism runs rampant at Cambridge—women weren't even allowed in the faculty dining hall. At the same time, James Watson and Francis Crick, an American and an Englishman, were working together on DNA analysis in Cambridge, and their professional rivalry with Wilkins and Franklin took a turn in their favor when they viewed an X-ray diffraction image that Rosalind took, her 51st photograph, that allowed them to determine the double helix structure of DNA.

Ziegler's 95-minute play makes for a taut thriller full of intrigue, with passionate characters who are just as engrossing as individuals as they are in their determination to unlock the mysteries of DNA. She effectively plays up the difficulties that Franklin faced and the constant struggle she encountered with many of her male coworkers and superiors, similar to what the African-American women at NASA experienced in Hidden Figures. Also, both the film and the play focus on issues of alienation—due to racism in Hidden Figures and religion in Photograph 51, as Franklin was Jewish. In doing so, Ziegler poses an interesting question: If Franklin were a man, and possibly not Jewish, would it have changed the way she was treated by her coworkers at Cambridge and allowed her to fully comprehend the impact of the image she took, possibly allowing her to receive the Nobel Prize instead of these three men?

As Rosalind, Kim Stephenson is stunning, delivering a vivid performance of this strong-willed woman. She is efficient, firm and fierce in her ability to portray Rosalind Franklin as a determined woman who takes her work seriously with a no nonsense approach to life. Yet in Stephenson's beautifully layered portrayal there is also a softness we see when Rosalind meets the one man she believes shares her passion. As that younger American Don Caspar, James Conway delivers an effervescent performance. While Caspar is mostly in the shadows for the first half of the play, when he steps forward in a few scenes that represent the letters that Caspar and Rosalyn exchanged, before he eventually ended up working with her in England, we see the instant connection these two individuals have. Due to the lovely performances and apparent natural admiration that Stephenson and Conway have for each other, these moments allow us to see the passion and desire that is burning inside Rosalind for someone she can connect to.

Ziegler's well-crafted script and Clay Sanderson's beautifully nuanced performance paint Maurice Wilkins as a man and not a villain. We understand that he is trying to find a way to connect with Rosalind, the first woman he's ever had to partner with, in hopes that their combined partnership will allow them to succeed. Yet he is stuck in the old boy's network and old school ways of doing things, which allows for walls and not bridges to be formed between the two. Sanderson does very good work here in showing Wilkins' frustrations, fears, and conflicted views, yet also his hope.

The partnership of Connor Wanless and Patrick Walsh, as James Watson and Francis Crick respectively, is more of a charismatic duo who see their chance to make themselves famous, even if it means stealing someone else's work. Both play off each other well, with Wanless the more humorous of the two and Walsh delivering a refined sensibility. As Wilkins and Franklin's assistant Ray Gosling, Benjamin Harris adds moments of levity, including a couple of big laughs, as Gosling tries to eliminate the conflicts the two have.

The Farnsworth Studio at the Mesa Arts Center has been reconfigured into a thrust stage with the audience on three sides of the action. This allows director Kelly Galvin and her all-female creative team to deliver an intimacy to the play with Galvin's staging quite effective, as she plants her cast on the various steps in the seating areas many times throughout the play. This move pulls us instantly in to the story. Calvin also uses just a few props and set pieces and in doing so lets the beauty of Ziegler's script and her talented cast take center stage without being bogged down behind an elaborate set. The crisp and clean production design is simple yet also contains elegant and even somewhat magical touches. Tiana Torrilhon-Wood's set design and Stacey Walston's lighting and props designs create an almost timeless place, with a stunning mobile hanging over center stage composed of dozens of photos and curved elements that play off the double helix composition of DNA and the photograph that unlocked the secret. Rebecca Halberg's sound design adds both realistic and imaginative touches. Maci Hosler's costumes and Sasha Wordlaw's hair and make-up are period perfect.

I'm not positive how much of Ziegler's script is fact, verses fiction, yet one thing is certain—without Rosalind's photograph we may never have discovered the secret of life.

Photograph 51 runs through March 11th, 2017, with performances at the Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street in Mesa, AZ. Tickets can be purchased at swshakespeare.org or by calling 480-644-6500

Director: Kelly Galvin
Production Stage Manager: Jenissa Yauney
Scenic Designer: Tiana Torrilhon-Wood
Lighting Designer / Properties Designer: Stacey Walston
Costume Designer: Maci Hosler
Sound Designer: Rebecca Halberg
Hair and Makeup Designer: Sasha Wordlaw

Cast:
Rosalind Franklin: Kim Stephenson
Maurice Wilkins: Clay Sanderson
Ray Gosling: Benjamin Harris
Don Caspar: James Conway
James Watson: Connor Wanless
Francis Crick: Patrick Walsh


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