Review: Who committed the ‘Ohio State Murders’? Who didn’t?

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

In the case of actor James Earl Jones, it wasn’t in a play In a marquee. In September, at the Court Theater on West 48th Street, where he first performed in 1958. Renamed in his honor.

and Thursday, with the opening “Ohio State Murders” revival On the same stage, Adrienne Kennedy finally showed one of her works at the center of American theatrical culture, for better or worse.

Why did it take so long? Either is a question you can answer in one word or several. In “Ohio State Murders,” Kennedy, an avant-garde who deserves a place among our most respected and produced playwrights, does it to many, each one a bullet.

First performed in 1991, the 75-minute play is neither cold nor artificial. Instead, Kenny Lyon’s piercing production, another performance by Audra Macdonald ripped from the femme fatale gallery, is agonizing in the story it tells and the immense effort expended to tell it right.

Or, better, wrong: The “Ohio State Murders” are severely unconventional. The mystery suggested by its title is mostly resolved within the first five minutes, while the crime and the culprit are almost casually (if not completely) revealed. Suzanne Alexander, a middle-aged author who arrives in Columbus in the play’s present to talk about the violent imagery in her work, quickly traces its source to the 1952 kidnapping and drowning of one of her twin daughters. An unmarried bachelor there.

“That happened later,” she says, immediately after being revealed out of sequence, as if there’s something more important to get back to.

There is; Kennedy, He was an undergraduate at Ohio State Set in the early 1950s, her complex organization uses the time it bought her to integrate, to piece together the context of fear and discrimination faced by black students of the era. A white classmate accuses Sue, then called the heroine, of stealing a watch, even though Sue herself had “the beautiful possessions and jewelry my parents gave me.” The English department would not allow her, or any other black student, to declare that major without special permission, usually not coming: “We were deemed unable to pass the program.”

The older and younger characters are usually split between two actors, but Kennedy MacDonald has allowed them to play both. Watching her change between them is a lesson. Sue is innocent and trusting, until circumstances teach her not to be; She drinks the literature she reads with an insatiable thirst. Suzanne, though she has survived tragedy and carved out a solid life for herself, remains anxious and fragile, sometimes smiling inappropriately, turning to private language while searching for the right words to convey the intensity of the forces at play.

Macdonald in neither role has the support of ordinary drama. There’s almost no dialogue in “Ohio State Murders,” because what happened to Sue is less important than how Susan tries, and you think she’s spent decades trying to understand it. The children’s father, her white English professor (Bryce Bingham), is merely biological and later a forensic fact; He admires her essays and teaches her to love Hardy (especially “Tess of the Urbervilles”) as very important pieces of the psychological puzzle.

In a typical drama, Professor Sue can be seen wooing or comforting or ultimately dismissing her; Here we experience him only in small fragments, reading and lecturing and speaking a few words in his general direction. The same technique also keeps her roommate (Abigail Stephenson), aunt (Lissan Mitchell) and her boyfriend (Mr. Fitzgerald) at a distance, as Susan describes their interactions rather than involving Sus.

Kennedy seems intent on defying the ease and publication of a traditional scene, just as he suggests a conceptual collection in which all space and furniture in Beowulf Boritt’s rough interpretation is a dump of library shelves full of legal tomes. But Macdonald was unsentimental; Her performance creates a crushing catharsis that goes unrecognized in some ways.

Leon, too, works brilliantly against the grain of the play. In thoughtfully mimicked vignettes, she shows us that the other characters are, to put it nicely, not just puppets of Susan’s memory, but living beings with their own struggles. The script (by Alan Lee Hughes) and costumes (Dede Ait) are less restrained than you might expect, and with sound and music (by Justin Ellington and Dwight Andrews) the horror acknowledges other sensibilities. Even children are represented tactilely: pink fabric, soft as a scarf and easily lost.

Even these warming, sentimental additions don’t detract from the intellectual integrity of Kennedy’s conception, and Macdonald’s astonishing access to a sense of tragedy undercuts the characters’ prickly weirdness. In my opinion, these are rather improvisations, forcing us to experience the central themes of the play as internal conflicts and social problems.

The community is by no means let off the hook. The racism at the heart of the murder mystery is at the heart of everything else, and it’s unclear which is cause and which is effect. So when Suzanne describes the “columned mansions” that sit “like a castle” on Columbus’s High Street, one can’t help but think of garden architecture — and Sue, reading from a book about symbols, immediately drives home:

“A city must have a sacred geography,” he says, “never arbitrary, but strictly planned in accordance with the dictates of a doctrine which the community upholds.” In other words, Suzanne’s experiences of exclusion are not accidents of racism, they are its targets.

In theaters — and what we see in them. If the stock starts last in both the marquee and the title page, it’s not just luck, but luck to experience it. Because our great artists, Kennedy, Jones and Macdonald, have been using their artistry to argue the case for years.

Ohio State Murders
Through February 12 at the James Earl Jones Theater in Manhattan; ohiostatemurdersbroadway.com. Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes.

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