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Williamstown Theatre Festival Audio Series An Artistic Success

Cast and creatives of "Photograph 51" at WTF
Williamstown Theatre Festival
Cast and creatives of "Photograph 51" at WTF

It’s impossible to know if the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s gamble to do their 2020 season as a series of audible books will pay off financially.   However, with the release of the first two plays of the seven-play series it has become clear it is an artistic success.

The newly released “Photograph 51” is a compelling tale about a pioneering scientist who, because of her sex and abrasive personality, was erased from her part of defining the double helix gene which was the breakthrough for understanding DNA.

When combined with the first play in the series, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which starred Audra McDonald, the two make an auspicious start for the series.  Indeed, under the direction of Robert O’Hara, the Audible production takes a fresh look at the Tennessee Williams masterpiece. And yes, McDonald’s star power comes across in the Audible recording.  

McDonald’s piercing performance of the tragic Blanche DuBois is enhanced by Carla Gugino’s remarkably sensitive portrayal of her conflicted sister Stella and Ariel Shafir’s understated performance as Stanley brings new shading to the relationships of the sisters. 

“Photograph 51” is an entirely different take on a tragic female.  It centers on the real-life story of Rosalind Franklin, who was not a delusional person living in a fantasy world.   Franklin was a strong-willed woman who saw herself superior to most of the men working in the scientific community of the 1950s.   Her powerful self-image caused her to be marginalized by the boys’ club working on discovering the nature of the human genetic code known as DNA.   

Though the DNA molecule was discovered in 1869, it was a mystery until the 1950s because no one could visualize its shape or design.  By figuring out how to bombard the molecule with X-rays, her breakthrough clear image – known as Photograph 51 - showed DNA as a long strand composed as a double helix.  In fact, it was Franklin who opened the door to breaking the genetic code.  Ironically, it was the breakthrough which helped Francis Crick and James Watson receive a Nobel Prize in 1962.  

In “Photograph 51” Crick and Watson are shown as almost comical opportunists who cashed in on the work of others.  Indeed, the play is about almost being self-serving while depreciating the work of Franklin.

Thanks to superior work by Anna Chlumsky as Franklin, she permits the listener to have sympathy for the woman’s plight if not a lot of empathy for the woman herself. Chlumsky makes it clear that Franklin was a difficult woman who did not play well with others.  As a female she was blunt, driven and ambitious. Those traits, and systemic sexism, alienated her from her male counterparts who were acceptably blunt, driven and ambitious.

If “Photograph 51” sounds dry or echoes so many sad but familiar stories of a woman betrayed by the time in which she lived, do not worry.  Playwright Anna Ziegler creates tension by setting the situation as a race between different teams all on the verge of a victory which will win fame and glory.  Helping the drama is that the race to victory is not a straight line, nor is it mired down by dry technical theories that can be barely understood.  This is an accessible work that can be appreciated by all.

“Photograph 51” is an interesting story about a brilliant woman who, in 1948, died of ovarian cancer at age 37 and before her contributions to science could be acknowledged.   I suspect one day you will see a film about the life of Rosalind Franklin.  I doubt if it will be more enlightening than listening to the Audio recording of “Photograph 51.”

For information about obtaining the Williamstown Audio series go to the Williamstown website wtfestival.org.   Or call  413-458-3200

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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