Geniuses have it rough. For proof, just watch Proof — in the film version of which, Gwyneth Paltrow portrays the life of a bonkers, brilliant mathematician — or Russell Crowe's role as the same in A Beautiful Mind. By now, everyone knows the standard plot of scripted drama about scientific discovery: the genius spends interminably long stretches of time hunkered over his desk, on the brink of madness, being nasty to everyone, forever on the cusp of cracking the code that will yield the secrets of the universe.
MAD MEN Rosalind Franklin (Becky Webber, with Jason Powers as James Watson) is the odd woman out among the team that won the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA.
Anna Ziegler's Photograph 51 (from Nora Theatre Company, at Central Square Theater through March 4) trades in these well-worn themes. It takes for its subject a figure criminally underserved by history, the physicist and X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin. After overcoming mountains of sexism to eke out an enviable scientific career and earn a prestigious King's College fellowship, Franklin began working with — and making incredible discoveries about — DNA. Regrettably, her unpublished research got into the hot little hands of James Watson and Francis Crick, who used it to formulate their 1962 Nobel-winning hypothesis about the structure of DNA without bothering to credit her.
At the play's start, on a bare stage flanked by lab tables, Franklin — played by Becky Webber — begins to tell her story, but is immediately drowned out by the voices of men. Enter her lab mates: Franklin's partner, the stuffy Maurice Wilkins (Owen Doyle), who wears a three-piece tweed suit, and her Judas-like assistant, Ray Gosling (Nick Sulfaro). There's Don Caspar (Jeremy Browne), Franklin's pen pal and, later, her collaborator and romantic interest. And then there are the rogues themselves, Watson (Jason Powers) and Crick (James Bocock).
Bocock's Crick might be a bit of a drip, but Powers is a stand-out. Although the rest of the actors indulge in their fair share of chicanery, Powers — with his Eraserhead hair — is the play's one true villain: an arrogant, ambitious little man out for personal glory. As Watson, Powers bellows and leaps across the stage, wearing the other characters down through wheedling, scheming, and pure vim. He's terribly fun to watch.
The other, nobler characters are tormented by self-recrimination. Wilkins dithers and frets about how best to win over frosty colleague Franklin. Gosling questions his own intentions. Caspar wonders where he went wrong.
At the center of all this angst is Franklin, abrasive and kind of nuts. She's horrible to Wilkins and dismissive of Gosling's concerns about her diminishing health: she spends many sleepless nights poring over X-ray images at the expense of her personal life and safety, disregarding protocol by beaming the X-ray directly at her abdomen (she died of ovarian cancer in 1958 at age 37).
In a way, it's admirable that Ziegler has written such an impossible heroine — the low road would have Franklin as a plucky gal, unfairly mistreated by her evil, sexist colleagues. As it stands, she's been twisted by years of adversity into a (justifiably) guarded, defensive, prickly character.