Adrienne Kennedy’s crushingly beautiful play, Ohio State Murders, is making a long overdue debut on Broadway. All these years later — Kennedy is now ninety-one— her work is still experimental and still challenging, and still exciting controversy.
Adding to the power of the evening—merely seventy-five minutes—is the superb presence of Audra McDonald as both Suzannes, the younger and the older. They are usually performed by two actors, but Kennedy gave McDonald special permission to play both roles. As it should be, surely, since the enormous events of the past have not only created the older personality, but have created her work. In the frame play Suzanne, now a famous dramatist, has been invited to her alma mater to give a lecture on the violent imagery in her plays.
That lecture is an autobiographical narrative, revealing the powerful and painful fact that these events are not only personal, but societal. Instead of giving us merely the external blame that we’ve become so used to, Kennedy gives us also an interior truth; Ohio State Murders argues for the existence of genuine contemporary tragedy.
What happened when she was an achingly innocent college freshman was the fault of the virulently racist university system, the vicious self-interest of her English professor (Bryce Pinkham), and the cruelty of her parents.
McDonald finds a high breathless voice and sweet open face for the young Suzanne as she is enchanted by Thomas Hardy’s novel and the young professor who introduces her to the allure of the Victorian novel. As events overtake her, her voice and face change as McDonald’s voice and face reflect the embittered and heartbroken woman she becomes, having earned the “violent imagery in my work.”
Without spoiling the plot, the conclusion of each story—past and present— is provided by only one line, each delivered with haunting, unforgettable power.
The austere set designed by Beowulf Boritt is in semi-darkness, with bookcases suspended in the air. There is a huge gash in the back wall through which we see snow falling endlessly. This provides the suitable context for the world of Adrienne Kennedy whose imagery is, indeed, violent. Kenny Leon directs with austerity as well.
[Polk & Company at the James Earl Jones Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, New York, NY] Opened December 8, 2022; polkandco.com/ohiostatemurders