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Photograph 51
by Anna Ziegler
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
West End Players Guild
April 5, 2019

Alex Fyles, Ryan Lawson-Maeske, Ben Ritchie, Nicole Angeli, Will Bonfiglio, John Wolbers
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is revisiting a winning formula with its latest production. It’s a biographical show about an important but historically overlooked woman scientist, and it’s directed by Ellie Schwetye. This year, though, it’s not Silent Sky. This time, the play in question is Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51, and the featured scientist is 20th century English chemist Rosalind Franklin. The resulting production, as before, is wondrous and illuminating.

Here, in Ziegler’s intelligent, thoughtful, and surprisingly witty play, the emphasis is on efforts to discover the structure of DNA, in which Franklin (Nicole Angeli) played a significant but–until recently–largely uncredited role. The play follows Franklin as she comes to work at Kings College, Cambridge in the early 1950s, and shows her utmost devotion to her work and her often rocky relationships with her colleagues, including the socially awkward and initially dismissive Maurice Wilkins (Ben Ritchie) and doctoral student Ray Gosling (Ryan Lawson-Maeske). As Franklin sets out using x-ray photography to get a clear picture of the structure of DNA, other scientists around the world are using various methods to achieve the same goal, and most notably the team of American James Watson (WIll Bonfiglio) and the English Francis Crick (John Wolbers), who are working together in London and become especially interested in Franklin’s work. Meanwhile, Franklin corresponds with admiring American doctoral student Don Caspar (Alex Fyles), with whom Franklin forms a bond of mutual understanding. While this synopsis seems fairly basic, the structure of the play is anything but basic. It’s especially clever in the way it reveals the events and the personalities of the characters through it’s semi-linear structure and frequent fourth-wall breaking, having the characters narrate parts of the story in turn but also occasionally talk about their observations in an “after-the-fact” way. It’s a fascinating play, in its depiction of events but also in its personalization of those events and vivid portrayal of the characters involved. It shines a light on the continuing issue of women being overshadowed by men in professional settings, as well as examining interpersonal communication, connection, scientists’ relationships with their work, and the pressure to succeed and find the next big discovery first.

West End Player’s Guild’s space in the basement of Union Avenue Christian Church is being well-utilized by this production, with a traditional stage setup and a remarkably detailed set by Kristin Cassidy, who also designed the props. The period setting and specific laboratory atmosphere is well-realized, with the two main lab spaces–Franklin/Wilkins and Watson/Crick, being the focal point but with the whole stage space being put to full use.  Tracey Newcomb’s excellent costumes also contribute to the authenticity of the tone and setting, as do Elizabeth Lund’s lighting and director Ellie Schwetye’s sound design.

The staging is smooth and dynamic, and the cast is simply ideal, with top-notch local performers led by the outstanding Angeli in a compelling performance as the determined, complex Franklin. She’s tough, snarky, and determined, but she’s also vulnerable and awkward at times, and her chemistry with her co-stars–particularly the also excellent Ritchie and Fyles–is excellent. Lawson-Maeske is also a standout as the opinionated and often overlooked Gosling, and there are also outstanding performances from Bonfiglio as the fiercely determined Watson and Wolbers the equally determined but more diplomatic Crick. It’s a truly stellar cast with no weak links, and the witty interplay between the characters is among the best features of this smartly staged production.

West End Players Guild has another winner with Photgraph 51. With an impressive cast and a thoughtful, often philosophical approach to its subject, it’s a show that manages to be surprisingly funny and poignant in equal measures. There’s one more weekend to see it. Don’t miss this one.

Ryan Lawson-Maeske, Will Bonfiglio, John Wolbes, Nicole Angeli, Ben Ritchie
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting Photograph 51 at Union Avenue Christian Church until April 14, 2019

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