Review: Who Committed the ‘Ohio State Murders’? Who Didn’t?

Two 91-year-old titans made belated Broadway debuts this fall.

In the case of the actor James Earl Jones, it was not in a play but on a marquee. In September, the Cort Theater, on West 48th Street, where he’d first performed in 1958, was renamed in his honor.

And on Thursday, with the opening of a revival of “Ohio State Murders” on the same stage, Adrienne Kennedy finally had one of her works appear in what is, for better or worse, the center of American theatrical culture.

Why it took so long in either case is a question you can answer in one word or many. In “Ohio State Murders,” Kennedy, an avant-gardist who deserves a place among our most honored and produced playwrights, does it in many, each of them a bullet.

Not that the 75-minute play, first performed in 1991, is coldblooded or didactic. Rather, in Kenny Leon’s piercing production, starring Audra McDonald in another performance ripped from her gallery of harrowing women, it is painful both in the story it tells and in the immense effort expended to tell it properly.

Or, better, improperly: “Ohio State Murders” is rigorously unconventional. The mystery suggested by its title is largely resolved in the first five minutes, when the crime and the criminal are almost casually (if incompletely) revealed. A middle-aged writer named Suzanne Alexander, who has come to Columbus in the play’s present tense to speak about the violent imagery in her work, quickly locates its source in the abduction and drowning of one of her infant twin daughters in 1952, when she was an unmarried undergraduate there.

“That was later,” she says immediately after the out-of-sequence revelation, as if there was something yet more important to get back to.

There is; Kennedy, who was herself an undergraduate at Ohio State in the early 1950s, uses the time that her tangled structure has bought her to assemble, collagelike, the atmosphere of dread and discrimination faced by Black students of the period. A white classmate accuses Sue, as the protagonist was then called, of stealing a watch, though Sue herself “owned beautiful possessions and jewelry that my parents had given me.” The English department will not allow her, or any other Black student, to declare that major without special consent, generally not forthcoming: “It was thought that we were not able to master the program.”

The older and younger characters are usually split between two actors, but Kennedy has given McDonald permission to play both. It’s a lesson in itself to watch her shift between them. Sue is innocent and trusting, until circumstances teach her not to be; she drinks in the literature she is reading as if with an endless thirst. Suzanne, though she has survived tragedy and fashioned a solid career for herself, is anxious and brittle, laughing inappropriately at times, reverting to a private language while furiously seeking the right words to convey the intensity of the forces at play.

In neither role does McDonald have the support of ordinary dramaturgy. There is virtually no dialogue in “Ohio State Murders,” because what happened to Sue is less important than how Suzanne tries, as you feel she has tried for decades, to understand it. That the father of the babies was her white English professor (Bryce Pinkham) is merely a biological and later a forensic fact; that he admires her essays and teaches her to love Hardy (especially and relevantly “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”) are more salient pieces of the psychological puzzle.

In a conventional drama, we might see the professor wooing or comforting or ultimately dismissing Sue; here we experience him only in small fragments, reading and lecturing and saying a few words in her general direction. The same technique keeps her roommate (Abigail Stephenson), aunt (Lizan Mitchell) and even her boyfriend (Mister Fitzgerald) at a distance, with Suzanne describing their interactions rather than Sue engaging in them.

Kennedy, it seems, aims to forbid us the ease and release of a traditional scene, just as she has prescribed a conceptual set that in Beowulf Boritt’s rather stiff interpretation represents all locations and furniture as a tumble of library shelves full of law tomes. But McDonald is incapable of nonemotion; her performance builds to a shattering catharsis that may in some ways be unauthorized.

Leon, too, works smartly against the grain of the play. In thoughtfully mimed vignettes, he shows us that the other characters, beautifully enacted if with little to say, are not just puppets of Suzanne’s memory but living creatures with their own struggles. They are lit (by Allen Lee Hughes) and costumed (by Dede Ayite) less forbiddingly than the script might lead you to expect, and accompanied by sound and music (by Justin Ellington and Dwight Andrews) that admits other emotions to the horror. Even the babies are touchingly represented: slips of pink fabric, delicate as scarves and as easily lost.

These warming, even sentimental additions do not detract from the intellectual integrity of Kennedy’s conception any more than McDonald’s astonishing access to tragic feeling diminishes the prickly oddness of the characters. To my mind these are instead enhancements, forcing us to experience the play’s central themes as internal conflicts and not just social ones.

Not that society is in any way let off the hook. The racism at the heart of the murder mystery is also at the heart of everything else, making it unclear which is the cause and which the effect. So when Suzanne describes the white sorority houses as “columned mansions” sitting “like a citadel” off Columbus’s High Street, it’s impossible not to think of plantation architecture — a point that Sue, reading from a book about symbols, drives home at once:

“A city should have a sacred geography,” she recites, “never arbitrary but planned in strict accord with the dictates of a doctrine that the society upholds.” In other words, Suzanne’s experiences of exclusion are no accident of racism, they are its goals.

Just so with theaters — and what we see within them. If the balance is at last beginning to tip, both on the marquee and the title page, it’s not just luck, though we are lucky to get to experience it. It’s because our greatest artists, Kennedy, Jones and McDonald among them, have been using their artistry to argue the case for years.

Ohio State Murders
Through Feb. 12 at the James Earl Jones Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes.

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