Renaissance Mounts an Exquisite “Photograph 51”

Neil Brookshire, Cassandra Bissell and Josh Krause in “Photograph 51” at Renaissance

Suzanne Fete, the Artistic Director at Renaissance Theaterworks, has stepped out of her administrators chair to direct an exquisite production of “Photograph 51,” the Anna Ziegler Play that is a portrait of genius faced with unreasonable obstacles.

This play, which opened over the weekend, is such a magnificently detailed and perfect production that it is an exemplar of the power of live theater to make you think, feel and both ask and answer questions.

Fete has surrounded the brilliant Cassandra Bissell with five men to tell the story of Rosalind Franklin (Ms. Bissell), the scientist who discovered the key to DNA in 1950’s London, and the five men who surrounded her and, eventually, snapped the credit she so profoundly deserved.

If the” MeToo” movement is about male sexual predators then Dr. Franklin (her co-workers called her Miss Franklin) could well have started a “How About Me?” movement, forcing the male dominated world of science to recognize her massive and long-lasting contributions to the world of scientific knowledge. 

Dr. Franklin, Jewish and a woman came to a largely WASP male Kings College to work on X-ray diffraction studies. She had been promised that she could do her own work but almost immediately found that she was going to be supervised by Dr. Maurice Wilkins (Neil Brookshire).

With that chilled reception we see our first glimpse of the ferocious intransigence of Dr. Franklin. She’ll have none of Dr. Wilkins, professionally or personally.

The play carries us along the path to discovery, a path centered on Dr. Franklin but populated equally by a gang of men who had obvious envy and equally obvious scorn for Ms. Franklin, for her work, for her personality and for her Jewishness.

Beside Dr. Wilkins the gang included Francis Crick (Trevor Rees) and James Watson (Nick Narcisi), a partnership that was also in search for the key to life.

Dr. Franklin was not without her allies, however, as she had a graduate assistant (Josh Krause) and a fanatic admirer from Yale (Joe Picchetti).

But these men were all moons circling the sun that was Dr. Franklin.

Ms. Bissell created a character that was desolate in her isolation and single-minded in her pursuit of her holy grail. She also has a rigid and almost frightening lack of social skill. If categorized, she may well have shown up on the autism spectrum.

Eventually the key to DNA, the helix found in Photograph 51 which was taken by Dr. Franklin, was appropriated by others and earned a Nobel Prize for three men, while Dr. Franklin remained without credit.

It was a pristine example of gender discrimination and a measure that shows how much progress has been made and how much further we have to go.

The five male actors in this production are all solid. Mr. Brookshire is particularly appealing as a scientist who wants to work with Dr. Franklin but is unable to crack her chilling code.

Ms. Bissell is an absolute marvel. She is crisp in manner, careful in style and cautious in her personal life. But most of all she is genuine. From her hobby of hiking in nature to her hopes hidden deep within her soul we know this woman well by the time the 90 minutes (no intermission) is over.

Her speech about these hidden hopes near the end of the show is as moving as you will ever see. I felt my heart open up to her as she laid her longings as bare as she dared.

Renaissance has a committent to woman centered theater and they achieve that goal regularly. But more than they, they have a commitment to tanscendent theater, and with “Photograph 51” they’ve reached that goal as well.

Production credits: Director, Suzan Fete; Assistant Director, Tanya Dhein; Stage Manager, Bailey Wegner; Technical Director, Anthony Lyons; Scenic Designer, Sarah E. Ross; Lighting Designer, Noele Stollmack; Props Manager, Heidi Salter; Sound Designer, Matthew Whitmore; Costume Designer, Jason Orlenko; Dialect Coach, Rick Pendzich; Production Photographer, Ross E. Zentner. 

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