Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Which is not to say this entire production is just shilling for your sister-in-law's twenty-five bucks, on a Sunday afternoon out. Respected actors take the stage, including Nicole Angeli, super-realistic as that X-ray crystallographer, under the direction of esteemed young director Ellie Schwetye. As Dr. Franklin, Ms. Angeli's sense of quiet rationality borders on the mystical. But (with one or two exceptions) all the men around her are painted as clowns, or thieves, or just plain inept. Which is pretty shocking, considering that, growing up, we were taught that people like Nobel Prize laureates Watson and Crick were the pioneers of genetic research. In this 95-minute drama, they are certifiable bastards.
Of course, James Watson got knocked off his lofty societal perch decades ago for his outspoken racism. Will Bonfiglio is gleefully wicked, and admirably awful in that role. But in Photograph 51, playwright Ziegler goes much further, leaving us with the unmistakable impression that cutting-edge science in those days was run by a passel of men not much more psychologically advanced than a back-room full of hapless used car salesmen. Francis Crick is played by smart, likable John Wolbers, though he is allowed by director Schwetye to take a huge acting shortcut by employing his now familiar, sometimes indecipherable, "comic fruity British accent" for easy laughs.
Beyond the vengeful feminism of the piece, we partake of a kind of sincere group therapy, a genuine anguished self-scourging, at what appears to have been a terrible historical fraud against Dr. Franklin. But there are lots of dour laughs too, mostly thanks to Ryan Lawson-Maeske, breaking new ground as Dr. Franklin's assistant. The humor of his character seems to unfold without effort, and his soft, steady narration is hypnotic, like old poetry. Ben Ritchie, Ms. Angeli's real-life husband, gets laughs too, and finds a new wavelength of characterization skewed (for comedy) perhaps just slightly away from his recent Tesman during the couple's joint appearance in Hedda Gabler. Here, his Dr. Wilkins (at Kings's College in London) stammers his way through a once in a lifetime chance to work with an outstanding female scientist. If you haven't been following this acting couple, Photograph 51 is a fun case where the actress-wife gets to "out-realistic" the actor-husband, in an always enjoyable pairing.
Alex Fyles does nicely, making a gradual entrance as Dr. Franklin's like-minded love interest Donald Caspar. It's an odd production, though: excellent people and an excellent crew, going into battle under the banner of an unconvincing playwright.
Photograph 51, through April 14, 2019, at West End Players, Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Blvd, St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.westendplayers.org.