Review: Audra McDonald Stars in Ohio State Murders, Adrienne Kennedy's Late Broadway Debut
Kenny Leon directs the first new production at the James Earl Jones Theatre.
Bookshelves packed with legal texts fly through the air and melt into the floor, swirling around a giant chasm in the upstage wall — an abyss. From the moment we enter the newly renovated James Earl Jones Theatre for Adrienne Kennedy's Ohio State Murders, Beowulf Boritt's cataclysmic set confronts us with unimaginable disaster. And for our protagonist, that is exactly what happened. The redoubtable Audra McDonald stars as the writer Suzanne Alexander, a recurring character and alter ego for Kennedy, a playwright who is making her overdue Broadway debut.
The 91-year-old author of Funnyhouse of a Negro and (most recently) He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box has long been one of the most adventurous voices on the American stage, employing an idiosyncratic range of interests (classical music, American race relations, old Hollywood movies) to tell dreamlike stories that are at once introspective and also reflective of a complex and contradictory world. Kennedy's plays don't condense easily into an elevator pitch, and this partly explains why it has taken nearly six decades for her to arrive on commercial Broadway — but it's better late than never. Director Kenny Leon's darkly mesmerizing production shows exactly what you can do with a Kennedy script and a first-class budget.
In the play, Suzanne has returned to Ohio State to deliver a speech explaining the origins of the violent imagery in her work. She recalls her time as an undergraduate at the university from 1949 to 50 when she was one of a handful of Black students on an overwhelmingly white campus. She fell in love with the writing of Thomas Hardy in an English survey course taught by a young professor named Robert Hampshire (Bryce Pinkham), with whom she embarked on a brief and clandestine affair. This sets in motion a series of events that eventually drives her from the university and results in multiple murders. This speech is Suzanne revealing what happened for the first time. She rehearses in the stacks of the law library, the exact place where she received the worst news of her life.
The suspense of the plot is less interesting to Kennedy than the indelible sights and sounds that accompany it, the memories that linger in Suzanne's mind no matter how much time passes: the sound of her roommate, Iris Ann (a waiflike Abigail Stephenson), practicing her violin; the cruel laugher of a white girl in the dorm (haunting sound design by Justin Ellington); Hampshire's icy blue eyes betraying the only hint of emotion (this is something Pinkham affects with unsettling rigor). Most of all, Suzanne remembers the snow of that miserable Ohio winter. It falls continuously in the upstage void, at times intensifying and threatening to bury all that has been revealed in its whiteness.
Suzanne's memories emerge like ghosts from the shadows of Allen Lee Hughes's gorgeous lighting, which turns the stage into a live noir film. Made from organic fabrics in muted colors, Dede Ayite's attractive costumes place the story firmly in the midcentury while helping to distinguish the actors playing multiple roles.
One of them is Lizan Mitchell, who portrays a chilly house mother at Ohio State, almost immediately transforms into Suzanne's sweet Aunt Louise, and then changes characters again to be the landlady Mrs. Tyler. We know these are all different women, but the use of a single actor gives the play the eerie vibe of a nightmare in which characters change identity while retaining their form. Mister Fitzgerald is similarly deft in the dual roles of Val (a useless gentleman caller) and Suzanne's eventual husband, David. In the latter role, Fitzgerald exudes calm and strength without speaking a word. He is a safe harbor when Suzanne is desperately adrift, and her giant grin tells the story of a woman relieved to see the shore.
While earlier productions of Ohio State Murders (which was first presented by the Great Lakes Theater Festival in 1990) split Suzanne into two roles (and older storyteller and a younger performer), McDonald plays both parts, seamlessly slipping between past and present. Leon's staging is so surefooted that we never question this choice, nor could we possibly question the ability of McDonald to age up and down in a split second. She makes it all perfectly natural.
McDonald endows Suzanne with a vulnerability that does not sacrifice authority, and a formality that still conveys a great deal of warmth. In that regard, she is the opposite of Hampshire. While his life is inhibited by his own sense of propriety, Suzanne follows her curiosity wherever it might take her, without regard for the expectations and limits placed on her as a Black woman (this is also true of Kennedy). A singsong quality to her voice, McDonald at times seems to be channeling the playwright herself. Her cheerful inflections might feel misplaced, but we understand that this is a coping mechanism meant to beat back the tears and allow her to trudge through the snowbanks of this horrible tale. A slight tremor in her body serves as a visual manifestation of the fact that great writers are rarely fearless, but they keep speaking the truth, even when their voices shake.
Ohio State Murders represents an extraordinary Broadway debut for Kennedy and a triumphant return for McDonald. It is further proof that Leon is one of the shrewdest directors working in the American theater. Kennedy probably didn't spare a thought for Broadway when she wrote Ohio State Murders, but there can be no doubt now that it belongs there.