note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth
Years ago, women were discouraged from entering the fields of math and science. When they did, their work usually was considered subsidiary to their male counterparts
. Even today, controversy swirls around the accomplishments of British biophysicist Rosalind Elsie Franklin, whose work as an X-ray crystallographer and her research and discovery leading to the previously-undiscovered structure of DNA that helped unlock “the secret of life,” went under-appreciated.
Without securing Franklin’s permission, male scientists Francis Crick and his zealous, young American partner, James Watson, “borrowed” or used some of Franklin’s findings gleaned from her cohort, Dr. Maurice Wilkins. They built their own scientific model, which led to their winning the Nobel Prize in 1962.
Although Anna Ziegler’s 90-minute, one-act play (currently presented by Nora Theatre Company at Central Square Theater) accurately infers Franklin fell a few steps short of reaching her solution but accomplished the important pre-discovery work, it also targets science’s discrimination towards females and her independent, isolationist attitude.
Dr. Franklin, who preferred to work alone in her lab, died in 1958 of ovarian cancer, at age 37. More recently, her accomplishments and contributions to science have resurfaced, gaining prominence.
Accomplished director Daniel Gidron leads an exemplary cast of prominent Boston actors, who provide insight into the world of competitive scientific findings while adhering closely to Franklin’s biography and accomplishments. Ziegler tosses in potential romantic interludes between Franklin and Don Caspar, an American student admirer, who later received a grant to work with her as a doctoral assistant. Ziegler also infuses Dr. Wilkins‘ growing infatuation with Franklin, the eroding of his chauvinistic attitude, and his admiration for her work, and her as a person, which she rebuffs.
Ziegler clearly indicates Franklin was a renowned scientist, whose reputation in London and Paris preceded her. When Franklin was hired to work on a project with Dr. John Randall at King’s College in London, Franklin thought she was leading a team. Instead, Dr. Wilkins informed her she was hired as his assistant, or associate, and they would share doctoral student, Ray Gosling. Ziegler indicates Wilkins ate lunch in the male-only dining commons, but other biographers dispute this.
Instead of appropriately referring to her as Dr. Franklin, Wilkins and other male scientists called her “Miss Franklin” to her face and “Rosy” behind her back. Her own father was chauvinistic and insisted she not pursue science but become a social worker. She resisted, and blazed her own path.
The play traces Franklin’s work and discovery at King’s College, her love of the outdoors and nature, her reluctance to interact with others socially - or professionally - and, while at the peak of her career, her inopportune death at age 37 in 1958.
Becky Webber as Rosalind Franklin is marvelous, exhibiting a saucy blend of independence, arrogance and pride (she came from a prominent British Jewish family). Owen Doyle as soft-spoken, shy Wilkins is wonderful, while contrastingly, Jason Powers as brash young American, James Watson, is marvelously irritating. Nick Sulfaro, who sensitively portrayed cross-dressing Angel in “Rent” at New Repertory Theatre, is poignantly pivotal here as narrator/doctoral assistant Ray Gosling; and James Bocock as Dr. Francis Crick and Jeremy Browne as Don Caspar are also admirable.
At Central Square Theater, the audience surrounds the actors on three sides, seated closely, and sometimes, amid the action, providing ringside seats into the scientists‘ labs, handsomely designed by award-winner Janie E. Howland.
On Feb. 23, after the 7:30 p.m. performance, Donald Caspar, Ph.D., professor emeritus of Biological Sciences at Florida State University and member of the National Academy of Sciences, will lead a discussion with Sarah Richardson, Ph.D, Harvard University assistant professor of the History of Science and Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality.
BOX INFO: One-act, 90-minute play, written by Anna Ziegler, presented by the Nora Theatre Company, now through March 4, at Central Square Theater, 450 Mass. Ave., Cambridge. Performances are Wednesday, Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 3,8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Tickets range from $15 to $45. Call 866-811-4111 or visit CentralSquareTheater.org.