CAMBRIDGE — It’s said that history is written by the winners. But sometimes history is rewritten — or recaptured — by the dramatists.
Anna Ziegler’s bracingly intelligent “Photograph 51,’’ now at Central Square Theater in a Nora Theatre Company production directed by Daniel Gidron, is a welcome addition to that useful category.
While Ziegler stacks the deck in a way that slightly weakens her play, she succeeds in focusing a long-overdue spotlight on Rosalind Franklin, the British scientist who made crucial contributions to the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA.
Of equal importance, the playwright makes Franklin seem worthy of that spotlight, not just as a neglected figure of science but as a compelling character.
Franklin, who was 37 when she died of ovarian cancer in 1958, has occupied a much smaller place in posterity than the three men — James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins — who shared a 1962 Nobel Prize for the discovery of what Wilkins, in “Photograph 51,’’ describes as “the secret of life.’’ The play’s title refers to an X-ray image Franklin captured a decade before that honor, paving the way for Watson and Crick’s breakthrough hypothesis about the structure of DNA.
Becky Webber’s disciplined, carefully calibrated portrayal of Franklin is first-rate. As if taking her cue from a line Franklin utters in the play — “Nothing is ever just one thing’’ — Webber builds a portrait of Franklin as an intricate human riddle. Both personally guarded and professionally in the vanguard, Webber’s Franklin attempts to do important work and demands to be treated as an equal in an era of overt sexism (no women are allowed in the King’s College senior common room, where her colleague Wilkins eats lunch) and in a field (genetics) where women scientists are scarce.
It’s the possibility of discovery that drives this biophysicist, and that means she has scant time for social niceties. Webber conveys Franklin’s prickly individualism and her brusqueness in dealing with her assistant (Nick Sulfaro).
Webber is ably complemented by Owen Doyle as Wilkins. Doyle delivers an excellent performance as the tweedy, well-meaning, but awkward scientist with whom Franklin conducts research from 1951 to 1953. In Ziegler’s telling, Wilkins harbors an unrequited crush on Franklin. He makes the mistake early on of calling her “Rosy,’’ and it’s pretty much all downhill from there, despite his tentative overtures, which include a gift of chocolates.
Janie E. Howland’s evocative sets underscore the gulf between them. Franklin’s lab space is pentagonal, while Wilkins’s is hexagonal. Similar shapes float above the stage.
Watson (Jason Powers) and Crick (James Bocock) are the villains of the piece, constantly nosing around for information on the research Franklin and Wilkins are doing. Unfortunately, Ziegler resorts to caricatures of Watson and Crick, especially the former, who is depicted as a venal, unscrupulous, exceedingly immature twerp. This credibility-straining character, reminiscent of Peter Shaffer’s cartoonish version of Mozart in “Amadeus,’’ serves mainly as a distraction.
Franklin’s growing isolation is effectively captured in a scene where Watson, Crick, and Wilkins, holding beer mugs, stand on one side of the stage, discussing her while she stands silently on the other side. “She’s a cipher where a woman should be,’’ Watson says dismissively.
Thanks to Ziegler’s fine play and Webber’s searching performance, Rosalind Franklin is anything but a cipher. She’s no longer a footnote, either.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.