THE CAST: Helen Sadler, Riley Neldam, George Ketsios, Giovanni Adams, Anil Margsahayam and Josh Odsess-Rubin.
Anna Ziegler’s play Photograph 51 focuses on scientist Rosalind Franklin's work in discovering the DNA double helix. She was a British science pioneer who took hundreds of X-ray crystallographic images and one of them showed the double-helix structure; the team later received a Nobel Prize for the discovery, but Franklin's role in the work went unacknowledged. The six cast members are excited for director Kimberly Senior’s vision for the play, are learning a bit about the science that led to the discovery and, below, they dish on their own science moments and talk about the characters they portray in the play.
Previously at SCR: I was in the Pacific Playwrights Festival reading of Little Black Shadows by Kemp Powers and then was in the production on the Argyros Stage.
My character is James Watson. He is an American, which is to say he lacks the social niceties—the English ‘sense of fair play’—when it comes to important matters like discovering the secret of life. Jim is wicked-smart, full of self-confidence and charm, and has an unrelenting drive to win. In another life, he might have made a good salesman or competitive athlete. He pushes his mates to cross the finish line first in the DNA race, leaving little time to count the cost.
The moment in the play that really resonates with me: The character of Rosalind has this beautiful speech where she shares a bit of wisdom passed down by her father and, to me, it felt very similar to the speech black parents give their children, this idea that you've got to be a cut above the rest when you start at a ‘disadvantage.’ In this case, because she’s a woman. I get the sense that Rosalind took this advice to heart and really held herself to an impossible standard. What struck me is how, in spite of all the effort she made to be remarkable, Rosalind and her hard work were almost forgotten.
My science moment in school: As a kid, I was full of questions and naturally gravitated toward the sciences. Photograph 51 actually brings back fond memories of high school, back in Mississippi, where I was lucky enough to be a part of a program called Base Pair, an obvious play on the foundational components of DNA; students were paired with medical researchers just across the street at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. My research focused on the p53 gene found on chromosome number 17, which encodes a protein shown to help prevent cancer. I looked into ways of detecting p53 protein (both healthy and mutated forms) in saliva as a marker for people with high risk of getting cancer, as was the case we found for one of my high school math teachers. I also looked into ways of using viral DNA to infect damaged cells with the good form of the p53 gene as a possible method for cancer treatment. However, my most vivid memory of this time is my Mom discovering me dead asleep in the medical lab late one night without so much as a phone call, she was royally pissed! I was lucky enough to have my research published in the Journal of the Mississippi Academy of Sciences. Pretty cool!
Previously at SCR: I’m making my debut!
My other credits include “Grimm,” “NCIS: Los Angeles,” “Scandal,” “Shameless,” and the TV series “Lethal Weapon.”
My character is Maurice Wilkins. He’s a man dedicated to his work and to the love of science. When one becomes deeply engrained in the work and nothing more, they become blinded to the world around them and, with that comes the loss of the life that surrounds them. He is a man full of regrets. The arrival of Rosalind Franklin comes with some difficulty, but she quickly turns to a shining light in Maurice's life; he’s both afraid to confess to and or confront her. As his love for her grows over the course of time, his past failures hold him back from expressing this to her.
The moment in the play that really resonates with me: I don't think I can choose just one. At the first rehearsal, I found myself laughing more than I expected and embracing all the humor that unfolds between the characters. Perhaps the one scene that resonates most is between Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, working side by side in the lab, while Ray Gosling acts as a mediator between them. The childish act of having Gosling tell the others what they’re thinking and saying just shows the absurdity that comes from playing games with one another.
The science moment in school I knew that it wasn’t for me. It was over a period of one month in sixth grade when our science teacher, Mr. Palmer, brought in dead things for the class to dissect. However, my present-day love of science comes from my son Leo's love for Tom Lehrer’s The Elements. To hear him sing this song, and rattle off all the elements, brings pure joy to my life!
Previously at SCR: This is my debut!
My other credits include Oh Danny Boy, “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Silicon Valley," “The Big Bang Theory" and "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”
My character is Francis Crick. He’s a bit of a multi-disciplined scientist. He has a lot of wit and humor and I think what resonates with me the most is his kindness to his friends. I know he's a bit of a villain in the play, alongside Watson, but there are these moments along the way that he looks out for his old friend Wilkins that make him likable. He also has a bit of a philosophical side that balances out the constant pressures of being a scientist. He ponders and explores and really only speaks when necessary.
The moment in the play that really resonates with me: I am drawn to the scenes at both the beginning and end of the play that talk about an actress in a play that Rosalind had seen that didn't stand out to her. On the surface, it seems like a pretty simple metaphor for Rosalind—not standing out in her field at the time. There are so many layers as to why this idea is so tragic and perplexing at the same time.
My big science moment: This actually happened when I came home from school. My grandfather, who was living with us, was a retired physics professor. There was a basic science quiz we had to study for and he really shined a lot of light on it for me. I remember sitting with him and just being in awe of how learned he was and how patiently he walked me through everything.
Previously at SCR: The Sisters Rosensweig.
My character is Ray Gosling. He’s a lesser-known figure during the era of this play, but he is a bit of an unsung hero in his own right. While he was working as Dr. Franklin’s assistant, he was often the one who captured and developed the X-ray images including the now famous “Photograph #51.”
The moment in the play that really resonates with me: I particularly like the moment when Rosalind and Maurice warm to each other very briefly when they discover they have a mutual love of Shakespeare.
The science moment in school I knew that it wasn’t for me: I was really interested in physics, but when I was told that my math grades and scores weren’t good enough to take physics, I had to let it all go at that point.
Previously at SCR: Sense and Sensibility this season as Edward Ferrars who courts Elinor Dashwood.
My character is Don Caspar, the one man in the play who unabashedly admires Rosalind Franklin, both as a scientist and as a person. Caspar and Watson are the only two Americans in our story and, in some ways, they represent the yin and yang of this country. While Watson is all cutthroat ambition, Caspar is all openness and warmth. An interesting historical note: Watson’s qualm with the real Caspar was that he was simply too unwilling to find faults in his colleagues.
The moment in the play that really resonates with me: It actually breaks my heart, when we see what might have been: when Rosalind voices her inner desires—her secrets, her dreams—and then we see what actually occurred. It is both a beautifully human and a wonderfully theatrical moment that you don’t expect.
My science moment: In elementary school, I definitely thought I was going to be a marine biologist. Within a few years, I found out that reading [and loving] a picture book about manta rays (so cool!) are quite different from actually learning about hemoglobins or hydrostatic pressure. The last nail in my science coffin was in college. I had a science requirement and thought I’d take an easy-sounding course geared for non-majors—astronomy. It was crazy-intense physics and dense mathematics and totally miserable. All I wanted to do was learn about constellations!
Previously at SCR: One Man, Two Guvnors and The Whale.
My character is Dr. Rosalind Franklin. She was a brilliant bio-physicist, whose pioneering work on X-ray diffraction led to the discovery of the structure of DNA. As portrayed in Photograph 51, she is single-minded, sometimes intractable but passionate and unapologetic in her pursuit of scientific excellence and truth, at great personal sacrifice.
The moment in the play that really resonates with me: There is a wonderful scene where Dr. Wilkins brings Dr. Franklin a box of chocolates to ‘make friends’ after a rocky start. She completely eviscerates him… so much of the humor comes from the difference in how the (male) scientists expect her to act, and what they actually encounter.
The moment I knew science wasn’t for me: When I was in school, the smell of the physics lab didn’t help. It was a pungent combination of the albino salamanders that were kept in a tank (who knows why?) and sulphur from many experiments. All of that just wafted down the corridor to greet us. Lovely…
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