(L-R) Audra McDonald and Abigail Stephenson in 'Ohio State Murders' on Broadway (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

In a recent “Vanity Fair” profile, six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald named her current role of Suzanne Alexander in Broadway’s “Ohio State Murders” as the hardest to date. Suzanne is a semi-autobiographical stand-in for the show’s 91-year-old playwright Adrienne Kennedy, who actually graduated from the gapingly large research university in 1953. Suzanne inhabits four of Kennedy’s dramas — a cycle called The Alexander Plays — and consistently envelops readers in her hypnotic (and oft manic) psyche. “Ohio” is number two in the series; Kennedy first penned the haunting memory play in 1992. Those three decades have brought us closer to, but nowhere near the true measure of labyrinthine brilliance overflowing from Kennedy’s mind. Hopefully, the next three can. And even though Kenny Leon’s plain direction threatens to flatten the rocky beauty of “Ohio,” this production ultimately reaffirms Kennedy’s singular mastery of common language, dissolution of traditional form and rightful place on Broadway.

The first scene hints at the difficulties to come — both recollective and dissociative, like a reversible fugue state. Present-day Suzanne — a successful author — returns to deliver a response to the school chairman’s inquiries about the violent imagery in her writing: “bloodied heads, severed limbs, dead father, dead Nazis, dying Jesus.” She derails into a fragmented yet hyper-detailed monologue over the course of 75 searing minutes, recounting the gruesome racist trauma, stalking and expulsion she faced during her time at Ohio State.

Past major productions have cast a second actor to portray the doe-eyed, college freshman version of Suzanne. Here, McDonald plays both parts, narrating Suzanne’s memories of the university in the 1950s whilst also stepping inside them. McDonald — known for her soaring operatic leaps — disappears into Suzanne; she successfully adopts a vocal jitteriness that dips into the barracks of its deepest register when Suzanne drops the play’s initial bomb: “Above the university was a residential district encompassed by a steep ravine…A year and a half later one of my baby twin daughters would be found dead there.”

Kennedy is one of the most subversive human beings to put pen to play. Her works are short, but rigorous and confounding, rarely following a linear narrative or even tone. “Ohio” — a play about infanticide — is on the simpler side. Yet the overall complexity in her work is a rare treasure to behold on Broadway. None of the ideas planted in “Ohio” are easily explained or forgotten over post-show drinks. 

Kennedy and Suzanne share that headiness. During her freshman year, Suzanne’s “continuing happiness was Professor Hampshire’s discussion of the Victorian novel.” Hampshire (Bryce Pinkham) is a young, white lecturer at Ohio State. He notices Suzanne’s intelligence, but can’t champion it because the English department considered Black students incapable of completing its courses. Still, Suzanne grows a fondness for the professor who impregnates, then ignores and, ultimately, impairs her. 

Kennedy’s script extends beyond institutional racism and delves into the depths of systemic savagery. It exposes the insidious nature of supremacy on Black and white people — neither race spared from madness. But these gargantuan concepts exhaust audiences because of Leon’s unheightened direction. To be fair, “Ohio” is more a play of reactions than action — a challenge to stage effectively. The other characters that populate Suzanne’s memory of the Midwest — roommate Iris Ann (Abigail Stephenson), eventual husband David Alexander (Mister Fitzgerald), landlord Mrs. Tyler (Lizan Mitchell) — only enter to cry, play violin or gaze into the wings. But Leon hardly has McDonald touch her silent scene mates, limiting the potential for onstage intimacy between characters. Instead, his rigid blocking of these extra characters is tiresome. In fact, McDonald’s greatest emotional connection is with two pink scarves meant to symbolize Suzanne’s twin girls. 

Beowulf Boritt defines physical space loosely on his liminal set — bedroom, lecture hall and Hampshire’s office are all one as per Kennedy’s exacting stage directions. The designer suspends tilted bookshelves in the air. It creates an ominous backdrop for Suzanne’s aria, but the staging of “Ohio” would benefit from separation (and, therefore, identification) of place. 

Kennedy grew to acclaim in the 1950s and ’60s but stands slightly apart from the Black Arts Movement. She won an Obie Award in 1964, the same year as Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) — ironically, the theatrical emblem of that movement. Baraka’s political brashness stood opposite to Kennedy’s psychological oeuvre. At only one point in “Ohio” do projections (by Jeff Sugg) show one of Suzanne’s remembrances of racist cruelty. The rest of the play demands we simply listen to and believe her trauma, without witnessing it. “Ohio” forces audiences to sit down and empathize with a Black woman’s recollection of systemic and personal abuse. Although written 30 years ago, it provides a poignant message about the strength that lives both in the throws of victimhood and after it.

“Ohio State Murders” opened at the James Earl Jones Theatre on Dec. 8, 2022.

Review photo: Richard Termine.

Creative: Written by Adrienne Kennedy; Original music by Dwight Andrews; Directed by Kenny Leon; Scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt; Costume Design by Dede Ayite; Lighting Design by Allen Lee Hughes; Sound Design by Justin Ellington; Projection Design by Jeff Sugg; Hair and Wig Design by J. Jared Janas; Makeup Design by J. Jared Janas. Casting by Caparelliotis Casting.

Produced by Jeffrey Richards, Lincoln Center Theater, Rebecca Gold, Jayne Baron Sherman and Hunter Arnold.

Cast: Audra McDonald, Bryce Pinkham, Lizan Mitchell, Mister Fitzgerald and Abigail Stephenson with Brett Diggs, Brooke Gardner, Christian Pedersen and Gayle Samuels.