BY ROB KENDT
Special to Newsday
November 6, 2007
Though it has the subject matter and the rough shape of
a procedural crime drama or murder mystery, "The Ohio State Murders" is primarily a literary inquest, not a literal one. The clues in Adrienne Kennedy's quietly eccentric play are as likely to come from books and films as from police reports.
Although a fictional pair of blood-chilling murders on the Ohio State University campus in 1949 are ostensibly the play's subject, they are dredged up as a way to plumb "the source of the violent imagery" in the work of a well-known writer, Suzanne Alexander (LisaGay Hamilton).
Pacing around the dusty stacks of a college library, Suzanne unspools recollections of her time at Ohio State, dropping hints of the title tragedy from an unnervingly early point. One of just 300 African-Americans among 27,000 white students, this minister's daughter from Cleveland details coping with the racism of low expectations, exclusion and implicit terror more than outright violent bigotry.
In one dryly funny scene, the young Suzanne (Cherise Booth), huddles with her roommate Iris Ann (Julia Pace Mitchell), as they listen to a nearby whites-only party whose DJ is spinning that irresistible chart-topper, the cast album of "Oklahoma."
At the play's troubled heart, though, are the brief encounters between Suzanne and a tweedy, tightly wound English professor, Hampshire (Saxon Palmer), who seems nearly as moved by her essay on Thomas Hardy as he is by Hardy himself. The blur is mutual, as Suzanne shows symptoms of that perennial student's affliction: an enchantment with literature tangled up with feelings for the lit prof.
Their relationship turns out to be more dark and obscure than it first seems - dark because that's how poisonous racial fixations turn out, and obscure because Kennedy's storytelling is deliberately, even maddeningly indirect. The older Suzanne never leaves the stage, and her narration is laid on so thickly that the performers enacting her collegiate past barely get a chance to register in their own right.
Instead they become like figures in a dream, sometimes speaking, often not, always being interpreted, described and repositioned by the narrator. As directed by Evan Yionoulis, these recollections attain the iconic stillness of a picture book, though a few actors - particularly Booth, Palmer and Aleta Mitchell (as an understanding aunt) - punch vividly through the two-dimensional frame.
The narrating Suzanne proves a less successful device. Hamilton plays her with a flinty urgency and transparency, but she doesn't seem old or circumspect enough to survey her life's landscape as if from a distance. Neither convincingly authoritative nor glaringly unreliable, Hamilton's Suzanne seems strangely recessive in her own story.
With a splash of snow outside Neil Patel's musty library set, on which Leah Gelpe periodically projects haunting photos and film clips, "Ohio State Murders" is rendered as an evocative, gem-like memory play, even if the seed of that memory is closer to a throbbing bruise than to a gem.
OHIO STATE MURDERS. Written by Adrienne
Alexander. Directed by Evan Yionoulis. Presented by
Theatre for a New Audience through Nov. 18 at The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 W. 42nd St., Manhattan. For tickets, call 646-223-3010. Seen Saturday.
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