By James Foritano
CAMBRIDGE – “Photograph 51,” Anna Ziegler’s play which has just had its current run at the Central Square Theater extended through March 18, is about degrees of separation and loneliness between scientists and the human beings who inhabit them more or less uneasily.
The Daniel Gidron-directed setting is the post-war race for, as James Watson terms it, ‘the secret of life’ or the double-helix structure of DNA. The race has narrowed to a team of Americans led by Linus Pauling at Berkeley, and two teams of British scientists: Francis Crick and James Watson at Cambridge and Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin at King’s College, London.
The first degree of separation is between winners and losers. Although science may be all about knowledge pieced together by generations of seekers, he (or she) who crosses the finish line first wins prizes, status, grants and all the perks of professional and personal advancement one is supposed to yearn for.
We never actually see Linus Pauling, but occasionally we hear his name pronounced ominously in one or the other British labs, as in: “Linus is working on it!” Or, “Linus has published… And this is enough said to raise the intensity of concentration and nerves to a yet higher level.
Forget your notions, if any yet remain, of dreamy scientists pursuing knowledge strictly for itself. The hot breath of failure pursues these modern day seekers and the sirens of glory beckon then onwards.
James Watson, as played by Jason Powers, is a particularly likeable player in this game of the impure science of winner-take-all. Far from defeated by the snags of science, the snares of fame, Watson fairly bounds onto and off stage, sniffing unashamedly at any and every scrap of progress towards the ultimate goal lying about anywhere in the rival lab of Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins.
It doesn’t hurt his quest to be on a first name basis as well as ‘old boy’ status with Maurice Wilkins. It also doesn’t hurt, or rather, does hurt that Maurice is definitely not on a first name, never mind ‘old boy’, status with his ‘collaborator’ Rosalind Franklin.
Ms. Franklin is a brilliant, painstakingly thorough scientist who is an expert in crystalline photography. In fact, she is much closer to her camera and the startlingly detailed photographs she is able to coax from it than to herself and/ or practically anyone of the opposite gender.
There is a possible someone, an American graduate student, although he remains, tragically, so far away from most of this saga that Rosalind’s hope of collaboration as a scientist and perhaps as a human being remains distant.
Meanwhile, closer to home, Maurice Wilkins is almost a stock figure of mid-20th century male chauvinism, sticking his very British foot in his mouth nearly every time he opens it in Ms. Franklin’s direction. Wilkins can’t even invite Rosalind to tea without wounding her already bedraggled esteem as a woman scientist, an oxymoron in the best of those times, in multiple ways.
The staging of “Photograph 51” cleverly and tellingly furnishes the dank London lab of these mismated scientists with pentagonal and hexagonal shapes that might well be crystals. These crystalline shapes become symbols of absorption in science as Maurice and Rosalind scurry amongst them after their life’s chosen quest; or, equally hide, behind them to escape the abrasions of dealing with each other, as well as the many sharply cutting edges of science, and of society.
One of the central quests of our time is illuminated with the acting and plotting of “Photograph 51”. We glimpse the personal and professional blind alleys and breath-taking vistas of this epic quest and yearn for more of the story even as these intriguing, compelling and exasperating characters take their far-from-final bows.
(“Photograph 51 continues through March 18 (extended from its original March 4 closing date) at the Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, Mass. For more information, call (617) 576-9278.)