The field of science is a tricky one for dramatists, given that much of the dialogue may approximate a foreign language to most theatergoers, although playwrights have successfully scaled that mountain in works such as “Galileo” and “Proof.”
Anna Ziegler’s “Photograph 51,” now unfolding on South Coast Repertory’s Julianne Argyros Stage, recreates the discovery of the structure of DNA — at London’s Kings College in the early 1950s — thereby uncovering what was hailed as no less than the very secret of life.
It’s heady stuff, and an understanding of the subject matter certainly would increase the playgoer’s enjoyment. But the SCR production, directed by Kimberly Senior, attempts with some success to make laboratory science palatable for a theater audience.
The focus here is not on medicine, the trio of scientists who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology, or the discovery of the structure of DNA. Rather the story is built around the woman, Dr. Rosalind Franklin, whose efforts contributed to the men’s triumph.
The single-minded determination of Franklin is strongly interpreted by Helen Sadler, depicting her character’s struggle to attain equal footing among her male colleagues. She feels the need to underscore her doctoral title and eschew emotional attachments.
In one key scene, Franklin confesses her regret for avoiding romantic involvement, and we glimpse, just for a few seconds, the slightest crack in her professional armor.
The stodgy senior scientist, who exudes assumed authority but secretly covets Rosalind, is solidly portrayed by George Ketsios. A young lab worker who eventually attains his doctorate is given a more humane turn by Josh Odsess-Rubin.
The two geneticists generally credited with the DNA breakthrough, James Watson and Francis Crick, get enthusiastic interpretations from Giovanni Adams and Anil Margsahayam, respectively. Riley Neldam completes the cast in a winning portrayal as Franklin’s eager assistant.
Cameron Anderson’s multi-use set design resembles a giant microscopic slide, over which the performers trod when active and occupy silently when not involved in a scene.
“Photograph 51,” so titled because that was the number of the breakthrough negative, may not be crystal clear to non-scientific playgoers, but the SCR production goes a long way toward explaining the “secret of life,” which created a vast impact on modern society.
Tom Titus reviews local theater.
IF YOU GO
What: “Photograph 51”
Where: South Coast Repertory, Julianne Argyros Theater, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:45 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 2 and 7:45 until March 24
Cost: Tickets start at $23
Information: (714) 708-5555; scr.org