Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Dana H.
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's reviews of Once on This Island, Hadestown and How I Learned What I Learned

Jordan Baker
Photo by Calvin Ngu/Berkeley Repertory Theatre
I have in this space occasionally referenced a line by Bay Area comedian Rick Reynolds, which was also the title of a one-man show of his: "Only the truth is funny." After being in the audience at Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Roda Theatre for the opening of Dana H., the new work by one of my favorite playwrights, Lucas Hnath, I believe that statement ought to be amended to add "and the truth can be pretty damn scary, too." For the 75 minutes of Dana H. I was riveted to my seat in curiosity, disbelief and, ultimately, horror as actor Jordan Baker related the true story of how Dana Higginbotham, (the mother of playwright Hnath), a chaplain in a hospital psych ward who was kidnapped by a patient in 1997 and held hostage for five months.

What heightens the horror and makes the experience all the more harrowing is that Baker doesn't speak her lines, but rather lip-syncs along to an actual recording of Dana relating her experience some years after the events. The horrible truth of what happened to Dana is infinitely more effective–and frightening–when you hear the catches in her voice and her nervous laughter, and feel the psychic distance she had created for herself in the intervening time between her captivity and when she sat down with interviewer Steve Cosson to capture the story for posterity.

The set (by Andrew Boyce) establishes a creepy, claustrophobic effect even before Baker steps on stage. Not because Boyce has created some house of horror like the basement in The Silence of the Lambs, but because he has perfectly reproduced the dull industrial milieu of a chain motel room, with its not-quite-pink concrete brick wall, bargain basement furnishings, bright tiled bathroom, and one of the ugliest bedspreads upon which you will ever lay your eyes. It looks like a place you want to spend zero time in–but it's the sort of space Dana spent her 150± days on the run with Jim, an ex-convict whom Dana had met when he was admitted after a horrifying suicide attempt. (He'd cut both his carotid arteries and sliced both wrists, yet somehow survived.) Covered with prison tattoos and scars from his suicide attempts and beatings (he served time in Folsom, San Quentin, and Pelican Bay), Jim is the very last person you'd want to spend the holidays with, but big-hearted Dana wouldn't let him be alone when he was discharged from the hospital on Christmas Eve with no place to go. A kindness Dana would live forever to regret.

The recording of Dana, expertly lip-synced by Baker (with assistance from Lip Sync Consultant–how does one get into that job?–Steve Cuiffo), is so coolly rendered that it chills you to the bone. We know there is a happy-ish ending because we know Dana survived to make the recording, but that somehow reduces the horror level not one iota. Jordan Baker adds to the tension by physically portraying this survivor with an ordinariness of physical movement that feels like the polar opposite of the dread and anxiety Dana lived–and likely still lives to some degree. She flips a hand casually to emphasize a point, adjusts her posture with quiet intention, and tilts her head as if to say "don't you think that's odd?" when the reference is to something far, far beyond odd. When she pulls from her purse a knife inscribed with a swastika that Jim had used, she displays it with no more import than if she were showing us a photo of a grandchild or her new cell phone.

It feels oddly synchronous to me that on two successive nights I would be taken on a journey into hell: one mythic (Hadestown) and one all too real. Leaving the Roda Theatre after the experience of Dana H., I felt incredibly grateful–both for Hnath and his mother sharing their story and for the fact that my life has been spared such horror.

Dana H. runs through July 10, 2022, in the Roda Theatre at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m. Matinees are Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Thursday, June 16 there is only a 2:00 p.m. matinee. On July 7, shows are at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Tickets range from $20-$89. For tickets and information, please visit, or call 510-647-2949.