Pictured: (l-r) Danielle Thorsen, Tim Moan, and Renee Lockett. Photo by Tom McGrath.
Review: OHIO STATE MURDERS at Dandelion Theatre
By Jude Hansen
Renee Lockett gives a magnetic and heartfelt performance as now successful author, Suzanne Alexander, returning to speak to the students at her alma mater (Ohio State). It is a tour de force performance in what is effectively an hour-long monologue with minor interjections of the re-enacted scenes of Suzanne’s life. OHIO STATE MURDERS is the harrowing tale of one woman’s journey growing up as an African American in the 50s trying to make a future for herself. She speaks of her pathway through college, persisting through systemic oppression, microaggressions, and outright blatant racism. In her performance, Lockett ranges from commanding the lecture hall to all-at-once losing herself in the fleeting detail of a flickering memory. In this intimate theater there are also so many delicious moments where she can speak directly to you. Lockett has such a natural ease that when she does so, you feel like the only person in the room, and that you are being honored with the gift of her story.
Quite simply, Lockett handles the material with maturity and a nuanced finesse, drawing upon a very deep-seated connection. It is certainly an absolute delight to watch a performer show such restraint and effortlessly shift from the public to private persona as the details of her story overwhelm her with emotion. The reason Lockett is so engaging to watch is her ability and fearlessness to play someone caught in the middle of two polarizing desires. As much as she doesn’t want to relive these memories, she also knows that there is a certain catharsis in finally taking the opportunity to make her own voice heard. As Suzanne, she is absolutely clear that this is her decision (not an institutional mandate). This lecture is a moment of self-empowerment that was seized, not given, and grueling as it may be, her story must be told.
Lockett is ably supported by Danielle Thorsen as the younger Suzanne. In her Chicago stage debut, Thorsen is radiant and undeniably watchable. She provides a naïve eagerness and savvy intelligence to the role. I’m really excited to see where her career will take her next. Unfortunately, Tim Moan as Robert Hampshire, her English professor, is miscast in a role that requires an introverted bookishness and repeatedly references his small stature. As a character he never really comes alive, even when reading from his beloved literature, of which Thomas Hardy appears to be a favorite. I’m quite well versed on Hardy (for obvious reasons) but there are passages that are dryly recited, lacking context and interrupting the flow of the play. While we are on Hardy, the supporting actors tend to foreshadow the horrifying climax to the piece just a little too much. But then again, perhaps foreshadowing is a given, considering the play’s title and because the narrator is telling the story retroactively. It’s always a stronger choice for the full weight of the tragedy to hit when revealed and not in fragments. Given that, the discovery of why there is a plural in the title is certainly a shocking and evocative moment that I was not prepared for.
One of the great things about Chicago independent theater is how companies can innovatively use even the tiniest of playing spaces on limited resources. This production is an excellent example of that. The set design (Rachel Rauscher) is incredibly effective,combined with projections (Chris Owens) that easily shift us from location to location within Suzanne’s recollections. Picture frames, which are partially obscured by outlines of books, converge over a central projection screen. It’s an arresting image that draws upon the way the university boxed the African American students into certain academic pathways. Suzanne is restricted from an English major, as advanced literature was not deemed suitable for the ‘negro’ to study without special permission. Functionally, however, these frames get in the way of the actors far too much. Similarly, the moving set pieces are distracting and would be just as effective in a stationary position. In such a text driven show, I would have liked a few more moments of period music to set the scene and soften the jarring effects of the disjointed timeline of Suzanne’s story.
At a twenty dollar suggested donation, this show is well worth your money, especially if that also means supporting an emerging theater company. However, this is a far too an important story for financial restrictions to be an issue when considering whether to see the show. Go see it! If the nimble direction of this production, by artistic director Katherine Lamb, is anything to go by, I hope there will be more sprouts from Dandelion surfacing soon.
OHIO STATE MURDERS runs through April 2nd. For more information visit dandeliontheatre.com.