The Secret of Life
NOT JUST FOR SCIENTISTS
Why do foxes give birth to baby foxes and turtles give birth to baby turtles? The answer is DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), a molecule within the cells of living things, that contains genetic instructions. In the early 1950’s, the race was on to identify the structure of the molecule, and this knowledge would later become the foundation for endeavors as wide ranging as disease prediction and prevention; paternity and ancestry confirmation; criminology procedures; and food innovation. This finding would be declared by many scientists to be the most important discovery of the 20th Century.
The quest to discover DNA’s structure is the platform for Bruce Coughran’s The Secret of Life, which is a true-life drama about the search and the great minds and personalities that pursued it. The seventy minute play is a compact, suspenseful, and engrossing rendering of the events leading to the discovery. In addition to public accounts, Coughran scoured original sources such as Rosalind Franklin’s letters and notes to provide a more complete picture than accepted wisdom. Along the way, the playwright depicts not only the application of deductive reasoning in the scientific method, but also the flashes and hunches that often bear fruit. The action takes place between January 1951, and February 1953, in two scientific labs, save for pub visits.
The less remembered lab was at Kings College London. Newly arrived Rosalind Franklin is shown as the most determined and accomplished DNA scientist, and Laura Lowry sizzles as the antisocial, no nonsense Franklin. She brooks no interference and bridles at the notion that she should assist senior scientist Maurice Wilkins. As the flummoxed Wilkins, Matt Weimer aptly depicts frustration and embarrassment when the “Dark Lady” creates better crystallography images of DNA than Wilkins himself. Luke Brady is appropriately fawning as subservient assistant, Raymond Gosling, who largely serves as a sounding board for Franklin to reveal herself beyond her tightly wound professional persona.
Many informed persons know the names Francis Crick and James Watson as Nobel Laureates for the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA, so hopefully, that is not a spoiler. They were then at the other lab in question, University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Lab and researched DNA only part-time as an unauthorized skunkworks project.
Sam Tillis as Crick and Alan Coyne as Watson depict how the two officemate scientists quickly bonded. Both actors play their parts well, but more conflict between the two would add desired dramatic tension. After all, Watson was an American, one year beyond earning his PhD at age 23, yet the DNA topic was outside of his area of expertise. When he became a famous personage, he was shown to be fractious and controversial, but not in this depiction. Englishman Crick was 12 years older and had conducted research in DNA, but was still a doctoral candidate, in part because of wartime service. Toward the final push in the search process, a potential mole in this research group is newly arrived Peter Pauling. Yes, he was the son of Linus Pauling, who would not only be awarded the 1954 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, but who was also one of the contestants for DNA’s holy grail. Robert Shryock delivers a fine performance as the conflicted younger Pauling.
The action proceeds to its historically accurate conclusion, revealing facets of the scientific community and facts leading to the discovery of DNA’s structure that are likely not familiar to most, adding plot and associated disputes. One of the artistically challengeable aspects of the script is the amount of scientific detail that is heaped on the audience. The playwright could not expect many to follow all of the descriptions about the DNA molecule and the procedures used in testing. But in an informal survey of my theater party, three of four find that the critical scientific points are clear and that the more arcane technical details add credibility to the dialogue, while comprehension of the latter is not required. An informative epilogue discusses the participants’ storied lives after this phase of their careers.
While it is tempting to divulge more specifics, it would be hard to avoid spoiling otherwise interesting revelations. Those who see this deserving work will likely try to assess what the critical accomplishments were in the process of revealing DNA’s structure; who most deserves credit; what, if any, ethical boundaries were breached in the process; and finally, whether the press acts to advance newsworthy icons rather than provide balanced coverage (does the name Donald Trump come to mind?).
Playwright Bruce Coughran is also the Director of the play and Artistic Director of the producing company, Indra’s Net Theatre, which specializes in plays with scientific content. Having limited resources, Coughran manages the action well using minimalistic staging. Separate areas of the small stage, set off by lighting changes, represent the two labs. The Secret of Life plays at Berkeley City Club through January 17.