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Theatre in Review: Ohio State Murders (James Earl Jones Theatre)

Audra McDonald. Photo: Richard Termine

How great an actress is Audra McDonald? As the lights come up at the Jones, she is seen standing with her back to the audience, and, instantly, a hush falls across the theatre. She has done nothing -- we haven't even seen her face -- and already you can hear a pin drop. Whatever mental radio waves she emits have the effect of subduing the room. Then we get a good look at her, that fixed smile contradicted by the brimming emotion in her eyes, and we hear the strain in her carefully controlled voice. One senses that a terrible revelation is in the offing and, in Ohio State Murders, playwright Adrienne Kennedy is ready to delivers on that awful expectation.

McDonald is Suzanne Alexander, a writer of note, who has been invited to the institution of the play's title. "I was asked to talk about the violent imagery in my work," she says. "Bloodied heads, severed limbs, dead father, dead Nazis, dying Jesus." She is also asked to comment, briefly, on her brief time, decades earlier, as a student at OSU. As it happens, the two topics are intimately related.

"When I visited Ohio State last year," Suzanne says, "it struck me as a series of disparate dark landscapes just as it had in 1949, the autumn of my freshman year." Indeed, in her description, the campus is defined by a treacherously confusing geography and an atmosphere of indifference that is indistinguishable from hostility. Black students are largely segregated, relegated to their own tables in dorm dining rooms and subtly discouraged from appearing on the main street. Limits are placed on educational opportunities: Suzanne, not having declared a major, enrolls in a course on the Victorian novel. "I didn't know there were no 'Negro' students in the English Department," she says, "It was thought that we were not able to master the program."

Suzanne is particularly taken with her professor, Robert Hampshire, and his thoughts on Thomas Hardy. Unsurprisingly, she is discomfited when, having read her paper on Tess of the D'Urbervilles, he peppers her with questions: Did she really write it? What research did she do? Was she previously she familiar with Hardy's novels? Casting aside the implied insults, she focuses on his written comments. "The language of the paper seems an extension of Hardy's own language," he notes. "Paper has unusual empathy for Tess." As it happens, Suzanne has good reason for understanding the suffering of Hardy's heroine; describing the neighborhood, adjacent to the campus, where the faculty lives, she has already told us, "A year and a half later, one of my baby twin daughters would be found dead there."

The truth about this incident, and so much more, comes out in fragments in Ohio State Murders and, more than once, you might be a tad confused about the sequence of events. But this is part of Kennedy's modus operandi; the closer we get to clarity, the more agonizing the suspense. Underlining the sense of dread is the script's singularly effective representation of a white-majority society as seen through Black eyes. Each detail stings: the loud parties thrown by white girls to which Suzanne and her friend Iris are not invited; the dorm supervisor who rifles through Suzanne's diary and private essays; Suzanne's casual comment about a well-off neighborhood: "There was no reason for Negroes to walk in those blocks." Even before we get to the full realization of the crimes committed against her -- which, horrifyingly, are ultimately hushed up with the collusion of her parents and fiancé -- the play establishes itself a theatrical analog to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.

McDonald, who has the rare ability to appear painfully vulnerable while simultaneously commanding the stage, sears herself into one's memory as Suzanne reveals long-suppressed truths that have lost none of their power to wound. In other productions of Ohio State Murders, the lead role has been divided between two actresses; here, the star is equally persuasive as the young Suzanne -- her probing, intelligent mind contrasted with a lurking anxiety -- and her older counterpart, possessed of a quiet authority earned at a terrible cost. If she dominates the action, Bryce Pinkham, looking haunted and hollowed out, is an eerily effective presence as Hampshire, whose full role in the story is only gradually understood. Lizan Mitchell is equally solid as a number of authority figures, some more sympathetic than others, as are Mister Fitzgerald as a pair of suitors and Abigail Stephenson as Iris, a violin student whose hopes are crushed by an unwelcoming educational system.

To capture Ohio State Murder's memory-play quality, set designer Beowulf Boritt has devised a library seemingly caught in a tornado, its bookshelves arranged in a kind of vortex; it is backed by wall of rock broken in two -- an allusion, perhaps, to Hampshire's discussion of "the abyss" in a lecture on one of the Arthurian poems. Projection designer Jeff Sugg adds to the dreamlike atmosphere with images of lynchings, maps of Wessex (Hardy's fictional countryside), and footage from the classic silent film Battleship Potemkin. (The famous Odessa Steps sequence, with its imagery of a baby carriage making an out-of-control descent, surely holds a dark meaning for Suzanne.) Allen Lee Hughes' lighting effortlessly shifts between time frames and states of mind, often creating compellingly noirish looks. Justin Ellington's sound design includes several evocative period music selections (musical theatre fans will recognize the melody of "Soleil" by Jule Styne, from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), along with plot-specific effects (a child coughing, for example), and strategic bits of reverb.

One of the most moving things about this production is how the work of Kennedy, an Off-Broadway stalwart for six decades, has been so lovingly brought to Broadway for the first time. It may seem like counterintuitive piece of programming, especially at this time of year. But Ohio State Murders, written in 1992, couldn't be more pertinent right now; its stark subject matter, brief running time, and gut-punch power invite comparisons to the tragedies of Aeschylus and Euripides. Cheers to Audra McDonald and company to bringing it so rivetingly to life. --David Barbour

(19 December 2022)

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