Theatre Review by Howard Miller - December 8, 2022
Ohio State Murders by Adrienne Kennedy. Directed by Kenny Leon. Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt. Costume design by Dede Ayite. Lighting design by Allen Lee Hughes. Sound design by Justin Ellington. Projection design by Jeff Sugg. Hair, wig, and makeup design by J. Jared Janas. Original music by Dwight Andrews.
In a season of several "must see" plays on Broadway (Leopoldstadt, Death of a Salesman, Topdog/Underdog, The Piano Lesson), Ohio State Murders bests them all. It certainly doesn't hurt that its star is the exceptionally gifted six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald, whose name alone should fill every one of the theater's 1,082 seats. But, truly, the play itself, a partially autobiographical work that has the feel of an authentic lived-through experience, is as deserving as all the accolades that are likely to come pouring down on McDonald, the rest of the cast, the design team, and director Kenny Leon.
To be sure, Adrienne Kennedy is not some unknown Emily Dickinson, a "Belle of Amherst," awaiting posthumous fame. Kennedy started out as part of the downtown theater scene back in the 1960s, when abstract, experimental, surrealistic plays were in vogue. Other than Ohio State Murders from 1992, which has had several New York productions through the years, she is probably best known for one of her own abstract, experimental, surrealistic works, the Obie-winning Funnyhouse of a Negro, most recently seen in revival at Off Broadway's Signature Theatre in 2016. That play, along with many of her others, set her reputation as a writer to be studied and analyzed as much as seen. As she says of herself during a taped interview we can hear as we enter the theater, "my plays have been liked by academics, but they've never reached a broad public."
If the gods of the theater have anything to say about it, Ohio State Murders, marking Kennedy's Broadway debut, should switch things around. For, while it reveals its secrets gradually, there is little that is abstract about the play, and the deepest it dives into symbolism is the constant image of falling snow, something that is called for in the script and whose psychological meaning you are free to decipher on your own. In brief, it is accessible as well as thoroughly compelling, sometimes gaspingly so, as it unpacks its tale of a horrific crime amidst the deeply embedded racism and male dominance that marked its lead character's experience as a young college student.
McDonald, who is on stage during the entire 75-minute production, portrays Suzanne Alexander, a recurrent character in several of Kennedy's plays. Alexander, a successful writer, has returned to her alma mater, Ohio State University, where, in the play's disturbing opening lines, she tells us has been invited to give a talk "about the violent imagery in my work: bloodied heads, severed limbs, dead father, dead Nazis, dying Jesus."
Quite a beginning! But for the rest of the play, we might say of Ms. Alexander that "still waters run deep." She will take us to the wellspring of those disturbing images in her own way and in her own time. This is a memory play, and memories follow their own timetable and sequence. But, again, thanks to McDonald's extraordinary performance and Kenny Leon's direction, the jagged and zigzagging path is clearly laid out before us, even as it is a difficult one for its central character to maneuver.
While McDonald's performance is the prime one, the rest of the cast is equally up to the task: Bryce Pinkham as a junior lecturer who thrills Suzanne with his reading aloud of Thomas Hardy's masterwork, "Tess of the D'Urbervilles"; Lizan Mitchell as her loving aunt who becomes her guardian angel after her own parents turn on her; Abigail Stephenson as one of Suzanne's few friends; and Mister Fitzgerald as her kind and patient beau and, later, her husband. Likewise, the production is perfectly supported by its design elements, especially by Beowulf Boritt's set design, both imagistic and practical, and by Allen Lee Hughes's shadowy and haunting lighting.
The specifics of the central mystery and the "murders" of the title are, one hopes, products of Kennedy's imagination. But it's not hard to grasp the reality beneath the carefully constructed surrounding story, a reality that Kennedy herself most likely experienced when she herself was a student at Ohio State back in the early 1950s, a young Black woman thrust into an unwelcoming sea of snowy white. Ohio State Murders is breathtaking in substance and in performance; it is not to be missed.