Ultimately appreciating “Ohio State Murders,” which opened Thursday on Broadway, first takes putting the bombastic title out of your mind. Playwright Adrienne Kennedy’s 1992 drama, you Netflix junkies, does not share the DNA of “Mindhunter” or “Dahmer.”
Rather, the considerate revival from director Kenny Leon explores the racist climate of a Midwestern university during the 1950s, and the monsters that such prejudices can unleash even at a supposed place of higher learning.
1 hour and 15 minutes, with no intermission. At the James Earl Jones Theatre, 138 W. 48 St.
That is not to say that the play by Kennedy, who is making her far-too-belated Broadway debut at 91, is a drag. It’s an absorbing, observant and admirably peculiar character study with stinging parallels to today. What the one-act drama comes just short of is being meaty.
With stories nominally about killings and who committed them — like, say, “Death on the Nile” — audiences are conditioned to expect a riveting build to an explosive revelation. While we learn about the deaths early on and there are some horrific shocks along the way, that’s simply not the play that Kennedy has written.
But she has crafted a formidable acting challenge in the form of Suzanne — a renowned writer who’s finally confronting her tragic past — who is played in a captivating tug-of-war by Audra McDonald.
Suzanne is methodical and pleasant, and has over decades built up a wall against the enormous pain she’s lived through. She begins by speaking to a crowd to explain, once and for all, the violent imagery that pervades her work. “Bloodied heads, severed limbs, dead father, dead Nazis, dying Jesus,” she says, to name a few. Suzanne was, we’re told, inspired by her struggles at Ohio State University.
She was a young black student who, because of her skin color, was not allowed to pursue the major of her dreams — English. But she does manage to enroll in a few classes and is particularly gripped by a course taught by Professor Hampshire (Bryce Pinkham), who is surprised by her superior essay-writing abilities.
Watch McDonald’s face as a rapt Suzanne listens to Hampshire read aloud “Tess of the d’Urbervilles.” Her one escape is literature and her eyes movingly well up at Hardy’s prose. We discover that there are more complex layers to her outpouring of emotion as the show goes on, but it’s gorgeous in the moment. These will turn out to be some of her final happy days.
Suzanne then becomes tangled up with Hampshire, and so begins the shattering of her life.
McDonald is an actress who radiates optimism and smiles often. And that positivity makes her agonized characters, such as Suzanne, absolutely fascinating to behold. From start to finish, there is an engrossing battle raging within the academic. Suzanne is desperate not to show her cards, at first, because that means the oppressive world will have won. Even after a terrible event befalls her, she refuses to leave Columbus. She’s full of stoic determination.
McDonald smartly finds contrarian moments for her careful professorial facade to crack and each and every one is affecting. When her gleaming face suddenly turns hurt, cold, angry or lifeless, it has a big, wordless punch.
The lion’s share of the show is hers, but Pinkham, who’s best known for his roles in musicals, has a striking scene. During another lecture late in the play, as Suzanne looks on with a polar opposite facial expression this time, his eyes are so red and strained it looks like he hasn’t slept in days. It’s simple but scary.
The drama is lent some weight by Beowulf Boritt’s borderline operatic set, with a split rock face in the back meant to evoke an all-important ravine alongside skewed bookshelves that cover the stage. In the gap between the rocks, snow rains down for almost the entire play and keeps us uncomfortable.
Less successful is Justin Ellington’s sound design that, while stemming from Suzanne’s non-linear memories, is occasionally so distracting and contrasting with the lines of dialogue the characters are speaking that the audience tunes out both.
Mister Fitzgerald, Lizan Mitchell and Abigail Stephenson all capably play small roles, but it’s really Ohio State Audra.
Kennedy’s play is not one to love or even necessarily be bowled over by. Still, her drama gives us a chill, some questions to ponder and a leading performance that’s a wow.