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“Secret of Life” Celebrates Scientists’ Struggles

by Barry David Horwitz

“The Secret of Life” pops up only once in a while, even at the Berkeley City Club. It’s a new play—a world premiere, no less—written, directed, and produced by Bruce Coughran, of the Indra’s Net Theater. The wonderful cast of six actors play six real-life researchers in England in the 50s–who finally discovered the “double helix,” the DNA molecule at the center of genetic life. It’s the true story that led to Nobel Prizes.

“The Secret of Life” may be summed up as the pursuit of scientific truth, lyrically rendered in language and movement, in dialogue and scenes—all in about 90 minutes. Coughran’s demystifying dialogue renders the scientists’ genius accessible. The answer, so simple: Work on that problem, then work on it again. Come up with unlikely, unbelievable solutions and make eccentric suggestions. They will all be ridiculed and rejected. Then do it again. Like Sisyphus. Like Camus who says that writing is “Revision, revision, revision.” Like Watson and Crick, Franklin and Wilkins, Gosling and Pauling—all dancing around answers for years until they grab the pieces out of thin air, re-order them, and change the world.

With only a couple of tables and a bit of equipment in the tiny room, Coughran depicts two laboratories in England: one at University of London, run by Maurice Wilkins (Matt Weimer), where the great Rosalind Franklin (Laura Lowry) works, along with her younger colleague Raymond Gosling (Luke Brady). At the other rather sketchy lab at Cambridge University, we find the quirky, intuitive British physicist Francis Crick (Sam Tillis), and the awkward young American biologist, James Watson (Alan Coyne), as well as the visiting son of Linus Pauling, Peter Pauling (Robert Shyrock). Those four Brits and the two visiting Americans—especially Franklin, Wilkins, Watson, and Crick—make up a story of curiosity, competition, and confrontation eventually garners Nobel Prizes and changes the face of Physics and Biology. The conflict and the camaraderie between these characters gives birth to shared discovery in this precise and revealing drama.

In the hands of playwright/director Coughran and his pitch-perfect cast, wielding British accents and American manners, spot-on 50s academic dress and lab-coats,  the play abolishes time, distance, and obscurity—to reveal the interactions and the mishaps, the mistakes and the breakthroughs of the four central struggling scientists—Franklin and Wilkins at London’s famous Cavendish Labs versus Watson and Crick at underfunded Cambridge. Watson and Crick, forbidden to delve into Rosalind Franklin’s groundbreaking radio crystallography photos, secretly continue to develop her ideas. With a series of errors, experiments, and conspiratorial acts, Crick and Watson stumble and surprise their way, slowly, toward the mysterious molecule. Is it the brilliance of the Brit or the American? is it luck? is it perserverance? At one moment, Tillis’s Crick grabs an idea out of the air, and worries it until something sticks. We believe utterly in Tillis’s focused and detailed portrayal of the Brit–a highlight of the show. Lowry’s Franklin continues to amaze, as she sticks to her dogged and delightful eccentricity, confounding the so-British males. Even the costumes say England and 50s, perfectly.

When that corrected and confounding molecule is finally rolled out, we feel the awe that the first witnesses of their achievement must have felt. Coughran and the actors have taken us on the step by step process of working out, guessing, and agonizing over their discovery, so that we all feel part of the uncertain, quixotic process.

The actors are all brilliant—Weimer’s witty portrayal of Wilkins is full of rich hesitation, trepidation, and second-guessing. He is amusingly appalled by Franklin’s brusqueness, her single-mindedness, her lack of sociability in the lab. He, too, is a joy to watch. Lowry’s Franklin presents a new generation, while Weimer embodies the older generation’s fear of an adventurous woman scientist. Franklin infuriates all who meet her—she just won’t be “nice” and settle in and be properly female and English, in that conformist 50s way. We watch Lowry with fascination. She is the dervish who anchors the play with her dominating voice, her precise, mechanical movements, and her wise rationality.

Luke Brady as Raymond Gosling, Laura Lowry as Rosalind Franklin and Matt Weimer as Maurice Wilkins

Luke Brady as Raymond Gosling, Laura Lowry as Rosalind Franklin and Matt Weimer as Maurice Wilkins

Lowry gives us the woman who died too early to receive the Nobel Prize that she made possible by her photos. She hits it way out of the park, even in the way she deals with the admiration of her low-keyed assistant, played by a quizzical, questioning Luke Brady, both becoming integral to the atoms that make up the whirling DNA of Coughran’s play.

On the Cambridge side, in the underfunded lab where the underdogs, Crick and Watson dwell, we find the brilliant, bold, British-inflected portrayal of Francis Crick by Sam Tillis. In the tight choreography of Coughran’s show, where every word and every step becomes meaningful, Tillis makes it all electric. He makes the words come from the depths of Crick’s genius and wizardry; he comes up with sudden insights, so that we can feel the heat of genius surge forward. Tillis makes Francis Crick the energizer of DNA discovery. His Crick shows us how to take chances, operate off the wall, how to twist possible solutions and clues until they form a perfect union.

Alan Coyne as James Watson

Alan Coyne as James Watson

Alan Coyne’s Watson, the American biologist from California, compliments Tillis’s Crickiness. He’s awkward, bumbling, and brilliant—finding his way among Brits—and enlarging their boundaries. Coyne inhabits the role and the play’s precise verbiage. His conversations with Tillis let us see how two ill-assorted buddies, contrary and complimentary, could come up with such marvels. When Robert Shryock as Peter Pauling arrives, they are ready to join in the great contest. Shryock contributes the precise amount of skepticism and naivete needed to urge them forward into battle with the London group.

Hold your breath for a couple of surprising finales–but nothing takes the place of that startling DNA molecule when they roll it out, and all the struggling personalities surge forward in its complexity and beauty.

“The Secret of Life,” written & directed by Bruce Coughran. Indra’s Net Theatre, World Premiere, at Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley. Through January, 17, 2015. Theater website

Cast: Laura Lowry: Rosalind Franklin. Sam Tillis: Francis Crick. Alan Coyne: James Watson.

Matt Weimer: Maurice Wilkins. Luke Brady: Raymond Gosling. Robert Shryock: Peter Pauling.