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BWW Review: THE OHIO STATE MURDERS at Round House Theater

Latest entry to the Adrienne Kennedy Festival produced with the McCarter Theatre Center

BWW Review: THE OHIO STATE MURDERS at Round House Theater

The Round House Theatre in Bethesda is spending part of this stunted, shuttered year of production to shine an online spotlight on the nearly-forgotten works of Adrienne Kennedy.

It's currently in the midst of a mini festival presenting four of her works, including a world premiere, amid a series of workshops and panel discussion, in association with the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J.

The third online production in the series, and the second from Kennedy's Alexander Plays, most recently came available. The Ohio State Murders is a penetrating, seemingly straightforward tale of mid-20th century discrimination in academia, blended with unspeakable crime.

It begins, in fact, with a speech being prepared by a seasoned writer in a library, recalling a time when Black women were snubbed in dorms, denied becoming English majors, cautioned not to visit white parts of campus, accused of petty crimes and abused by those in power.

"I was asked to talk about the violent imagery in my work," the elder Suzanne Alexander (Lynda Gravátt) begins her planned address, and the narrative goes swiftly to her remembrance of life back in college, where the joys of finding kindred voices like Thomas Hardy or Sergei Eisenstein in an academic safe space are negated by the everyday slights and inequities she is expected to endure.

Gravátt, a Helen Hayes winner who played opposite James Earl Jones on Broadway in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof among her many credits (including Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? at Arena Stage) brings a necessary gravitas to the role of an unassailed literary figure looking back. She has no need to embellish her achievements, nor to shy away from the wrongs she endured - only realizing in subsequent years their full depth.

Billie Krishawn brings a youthful purity to her role as the young Alexander, her eyes being opened to the possibilities of higher learning and the wonder of literature only to be shocked at the cold realities of the racist world that close in.

Rex Daugherty - who was so good in last year's Solas Nua bartending saga The Smuggler - strikes the right tone as a professor, seemingly so lost in his own academic studies to notice how he's affecting students.

Kennedy's elliptical style, dropping hints of the crime at the center of the piece, brings an unexpected tension strictly through the storytelling.

It's a relatively brief exercise - 52 minutes not counting the six minute preamble on how great it's going to be (which could have proven on its own).

Like much being produced in these strained times, The Ohio State Murders is a confusing amalgam - more than a table read, but less than a film experience, although streaming is the only way to see it.

You wouldn't even necessarily think of it as theater except for the sponsors and the cinderblock background of the Round House stage.

And while reading and script stands are part of the production, from the stage directions given by Agyeiwaa Asante at the start to the reading of the speech draft by Gravátt or lecture notes by Daugherty, there is acting involved from Kirshawn and a handful of supporting players repopulating the past that include Iris Ann, Andrea Harris Smith and Yao Dogbe that are essentially freed from the page.

What's helpful in this medium is the ability of director Valerie Curtis-Newton (with director of photography Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) to neatly delineate the flashbacks through use of black and white.

But considering it's more than a cold table read, more time could have been taken so that some of the lines by Gravátt wouldn't lose their meter or sound like she's reading it for the first time. Certainly the pronunciation of Bette Davis' name in one passage could have been corrected.

The sound, too, was occasionally marred by microphones catching the rustling paper or getting caught in clothing, like Daugherty's vested suit.

Whatever the technical gaffes, the unquestioned star of the show, though, becomes the poetic and powerful language of Kennedy, which may have been lost had it not been for a laudable showcase such as this.

Running time: 58 minutes, no intermission, streaming.

Photo: Lynda Gravatt, courtesy Round House Theatre.

The Ohio State Murders continues at Round House Theatre as part of its series The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration & Influence produced in association with the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J. and plays in repertoire with three other plays available on demand through February 2021: He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, Sleep Deprivation Chamber and, on Dec. 12, the world premiere Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side. Remaining panel discussions on Adrienne Kennedy's work are Critical Reflections Dec. 7 at 7 p.m. and The Black Avant Garde Dec. 14. Information at 240-644-1100 or online.

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From This Author Roger Catlin