Off Broadway Reviews
Hnath, the author of plays as diverse and existential as Hillary and Clinton, A Doll's House, Part 2, The Thin Place, Red Speedo, The Christians, and Isaac's Eye, had been asked in 2015 by Steve Cosson, the artistic director of The Civilians, if he was interested in making a piece of documentary theater. What Cosson didn't know was that there had been an incident in the life of Hnath's mother, a bizarre, horrible, terrifying incident, that would be the perfect subject matter for a piece of documentary theater. But Hnath knew he was too close to his mother to be the one to interview her about what happened, so Cosson was tapped to be the interviewer. It's his voice we hear asking Dana the questions, and it's her voice and her emotional register we hear responding to him and telling her incredulous story.
Higginbotham is a counselor and chaplain who specializes in working with terminally ill patients as well as those with psychiatric diagnoses. In the late 1990s (when Hnath was studying theatre at NYU), she meets and works with a psych patient named Jim, a tatted-up felon who tells her he's a member of the Aryan Brotherhood. Despite Dana's help, Jim is unable to function in the real world. He ends up kidnapping her and dragging her around the country, from seedy motel to seedy motel, for many months. Dana tries to escape multiple times but even law enforcement, who knows who Jim is, is intimated and fear for their safety and the safety of their families. The drama in Dana H. is driven by the question of how Dana will escape and what will happen to her.
Dana H. is divided into three sections: "A Patient Named Jim," "The Next Five Months," and "The Bridge." Throughout, it's virtually impossible to tell O'Connell isn't actually speaking. In addition to lip-syncing every word, she acts every cough, stammer, laugh and pause with convincing ease. Every time she makes a gesture it appears to be the only gesture Dana would be making at that moment in the story. The edits or jumps in the recording are audible and add to the building tension of Dana's captivity. They remind the audience that there are bits and pieces of Cosson and Higginbotham's conversation we're not hearing, and we can't help but wonder what those bits and pieces could be.
Dana H. dramatizes the difficulty of reliving an experience so traumatic that it sets up a battle between the victim's memory and our willingness to believe her. The audience is allowed to draw its own conclusions about her story of survival, and one suspects that's exactly the way Hnath wants it.