Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 17, 2021
Dana H. By Lucas Hnath. Directed by Les Waters. Audio editing and sound design by Mikhail Fiksel. Scenic design by Andrew Boyce . Costume design by Janice Pytel. Lighting and supertitle design by Paul Toben. Illusion and lip sync consultant Steve Cuiffo.
What we are presented with over the course of 75 minutes is an account of the kidnapping and horrific physical and psychological abuse experienced by the title character. "Dana H." is Dana Higginbotham, the mother of playwright Lucas Hnath, who created the production from taped interviews with her about a "series of incidents" that took place in a period of five months in 1997.
We are not told when Hnath first learned of her ordeal, but the play itself began to take shape in 2015, when Hnath enlisted the aid of a friend, Steve Cosson, himself a documentary theater-maker, to interview and record Higginbotham as she talked about what had happened to her. The evening itself takes the form of a solo performance by actress Deirdre O'Connell, who lip syncs to the included portions of the interviews.
As the narrative unfolds, O'Connell is sitting in a chair on Andrew Boyce's set that resembles a generic cheap motel room of the sort that can be found throughout Florida, where most of the events take place. The walls are the color of a pink flamingo, and the room is furnished with generic motel pieces: a bed, a pair of nightstands, a table, and a couple of chairs. We watch as the actress is fitted with a headset, which will allow her to hear the recorded words directly so that she can concentrate on matching them with her silent mouthing and body language. You could call the lip syncing a theatrical gimmick, but one thing it does do is to give literal voice to the victim herself while assuring that her story will come out exactly the same way at every performance.
At the time of her kidnapping, Dana was working as a nondenominational chaplain in a psychiatric facility. One of her clients was "Jim," a man with both a violent criminal history and suicide attempts on his record. Over time, Jim became attached to, then fixated on Dana. The actual kidnapping took place one night when he broke into her home. What follows is nothing less than a living nightmare that spills out from a never-fully-recovered mind that is trying to recreate what it was like.
Questions and even doubts are likely to arise in your own mind, especially when Dana herself says, "my mother always told me I had an active imagination." Post-traumatic stress disorder and even life-saving dissociative disorder, both of which Dana tells us she has had to live with, cause breakdowns in memory and temporal continuity that need to be taken into account. This explains the handful of props that O'Connell brings with her: photographs, some physical "souvenirs," and a manuscript in which Dana set down her experience in 2013 and which she refers to from time to time. "OK. My favorite part," she says dryly as she reads aloud from the manuscript at one particularly harrowing point.
Prior to this Broadway production, Ms. O'Connell performed the role in Los Angeles, Chicago, and at Off Broadway's Vineyard Theatre. Over time, she has perfected not only her lip-syncing skills (which, in truth, are somewhat lost in this larger venue), but also her total performance, so that every gesture, every shuffle in her seat, every facial expression aligns perfectly with the story that emerges from the recorded voice of the real Dana H. We may never fully know or understand what happened to her. We may even question some of the facts as they are presented. But what is revealed is quite enough.