Adrienne Kennedy’s “Ohio State Murders” could almost be mistaken for simple storytelling. A woman rises from a table, and for 55 minutes she recalls a vicious, race-related crime she endured 50 years ago. Ghosts of the past move around her, but she stands in the present, safe and free. Or so it seems. However, then and now fuse together, and the dream-like result is not a mere monologue, but a complex drama. Despite some slips, Theater for a New Audience succeeds in evoking the ongoing threat of the script’s ancient crimes.
Capturing the dread in Kennedy’s stage directions, Neil Patel’s set speaks volumes. One glimpse announces we’re in the basement of a college library, where towering bookshelves almost reach the tiny windows at the top of a wall. Through the glass, we see falling snow and a distorted image of the above-ground campus. The room is like a wintry tomb, and since the spines of the books have faded to gray, with no titles visible, it’s like everything here has died.
The morbid stage complicates the presence of African-American writer Suzanne Alexander (LisaGay Hamilton), who is ostensibly giving a lecture at Ohio State. She explains how her violent ordeal at the school led to the bloody imagery in her work, but who’s hearing her? The production implies no one’s there — that we might be in Suzanne’s mind.
However it’s interpreted, the suggestive approach casts a spell. Director Evan Yionoulis paints with silence and stillness, letting simple images gather weight. When Suzanne describes being ostracized by her white dormmates, we see young Suzanne (Cherise Boothe) and her friend Iris Ann (Julia Pace Mitchell) frozen on a bed, listening to a recording of “Oklahoma!” blaring through the wall. At first, the show tunes are just funny, but the longer we watch the girls, obviously not invited to the party down the hall, the crueler the music becomes.
Hamilton’s perf has similar power. As she describes the most shocking events — which are not shown onstage — she speaks coolly, like a reporter. It’s only when she remembers, say, the kindness of a family friend or first falling in love with English literature that her elegant bearing collapses into vulnerability. By withholding emotion from her worst memories, she shows us a woman trying to conquer her past.
Of course, if Suzanne were really healed, she wouldn’t be trapped in the play, and that only makes her struggle more poignant.
In another striking choice, the actors playing young Suzanne’s friends and teachers are universally kind. Their gentle perfs underscore that a civilized place can be cruel.
Against such accomplished work, Leah Gelpe’s projection designs are glaringly out of place. Ghostly images sometimes flicker on the walls, but they are so obviously computer generated they become tacky distractions. Likewise, key words in Suzanne’s final speech are projected in various fonts, just in case we miss them. The blunt gesture robs the text of its mystery.
Sound design by Mike Yionoulis and Sarah Pickett often confounds. At regular intervals, we hear an unidentifiable noise, which sounds like a harsher version of Velcro being ripped. It has no obvious meaning, so it’s just a confusing interruption.
Eventually, though, the sound cue stops, and the play reasserts its hold.