The Readers’ Theatre of Ithaca will begin its 2014-15 season at 8 p.m. this Friday at Cinemapolis with Anna Ziegler’s historical scientific drama “Photograph 51.”
Directed by RTI’s founder and artistic director, Anne Marie Cummings, “Photograph 51” is an 90-minute play about the struggles of a female scientist in a male-dominated world.
Marissa Biondolillo of the Readers’ Theatre’s “Photograph 51” plays Dr. Rosalind Franklin, known for her work on DNA. (Photo courtesy of Anne Marie Cummings)
At its nucleus is Rosalind Franklin (Marissa Biondolillo), an English chemist known for her deoxyribonucleic acid research. Her X-ray diffraction images helped Francis Crick (David Romm), James Watson (Cole Long) and Maurice Wilkins (Jacob Garrett White) prove the structure of the double helix — cracking the code to the meaning of life.
“Photograph 51” is Ziegler’s diorama, filled with six moving pieces in the quadraladeral 16-by-4 inch stage at Cinemapolis. The play was written for UC Santa Barbara’s third annual Scientist, Technologists and Artists Generating Exploration International Script Competition. Ziegler chose Franklin as her focal point, developing an intricate and multilayered script around her.
“This is a fascinating script, but it divides time in a rapid way,” said Long. “The only time you know that time shifts is someone interjects and says, ‘Well, in fact…,’ ‘No, actually…’”
The events of the play are narrated by five scientists: Watson, Crick, Wilkins, Don Casper (Dave Dietrich) and Ray Gosling (Janet Jayne). Franklin swims into focus as they paint a picture of her life between January 1951 to February 1953.
Biondolillo said she could relate to Franklin because she has the same passion for acting as Franklin had for science.
“I’ve admired her since I was 17 because I was an AP biology kid and this was sort of my thing,” says Biondolillo. “On top of being a drama club nerd, I studied science really hard so when I got to play Rosalind Franklin, I was like, ‘Oh my God.'”
“Photograph 51” contains more than 60 short engaging scenes. The fractured nature of the play, however, made it a directorial challenge, said Cummings.
“…there’s a quarrel aspect in which the men are narrating historical events from a future perspective,” said Cummings in a pre-show talk. “And this right there means there’s a lot of challenges because the actors as an ensemble are making vocal shifts and physical shifts to help the audience follow what was happening.”
The fluidity of time and space makes “Photograph 51” seem like a motion picture.
“When I first got a hold of this script, I thought of it as a ‘Sherlock Holmes’ film,” said Cummings.
“This script is a real privilege to work on,” adds Long. “It’s rare to find a play with this crystalline clarity among its complexity, its emotional depth while still being respectful to the fact that these people are scientists and working on a technical subject, never letting the characters and emotions — which are immense in the play — without letting them obscure or overshadow the importance of the work that they are doing.”
“Even within the play, you’re not sure what’s true,” says White.
Although “Photograph 51” was based on historical events, Cummings and Ziegler take some artistic liberties with the play.
Gosling, who’s credited for taking “photograph 51” — which clearly shows the double helix in a DNA molecule, is a man; however, his character in Cummings’ adaption is played by a woman. This adds another dynamic to the play, says Jayne.
“It’s interesting because you kind of have to pretend to be a man in this environment to succeed,” said Jayne. “But in my mind, I can see and sympathize with what [Rosalind is] going through.”
Dietrich, who plays Casper — a doctoral student at Yale who corresponded with Franklin over letters, said he didn’t know if there was any romance in the real-life relationship between Casper and Franklin.
“I started to do research, but stopped pretty quickly because the story of Don Casper and Rosalind Franklin,” Dietrich said. “I’m not sure he even met her rather than the events that happened [over the play].”
Long said he researched the living Watson from the past 10 to 20 years.
“The thing I found really fascinating is that I don’t think the play paints him as this really heroic figure, but he’s like, ‘I quite like the play. I think there’s a lot of truth to it,’” Long said.
Ziegler’s “Photograph 51” won the 2008 STAGE International Script Competition. It was one of the 50 plays considered for the Readers’ Theatre’s fifth season.
“By page 5, I was like, ‘This is it,’” said Cummings. “This is a play I want to do.”
Scripts are selected by the Readers’ Theatre script reading committee, which consists of Cummings, Millie Kuner, Susan Boutros, Alissa Heyman, George Holets, Jayme Kilburn, Linda H. Marks, Tim Perry, Laura Shannon, Peter Stein and Gary Weissbrot.
“It’s kind of a gift for the audiences and the actors because the details won’t get lost,” Cummings said.
“Photograph 51” was written by Anna Ziegler and directed by Anne Marie Cummings, starring Marissa Biondolillo, Cole Long, David Romm, Janet Jayne, Jacob Garrett White and Dave Dietrich; with music by Hank Roberts. A staged reading will be performed from Sept. 26-28 at Cinemapolis on 120 East Green Street in Ithaca, N.Y.
Before and after the Readers’ Theatre’s performance of “Photograph 51,” Ports of New York Port will be providing wine samples in the Cinemapolis Lobby. A 15-minute pre-recorded Skype session with playwright Anna Ziegler will be screened following each performance.
Tickets can be purchased at www.thereaderstheatre.com. Advance tickets are $10 for students and $12 for adults.
To read my preview in The Ithaca Voice, click here.