“Dana H.” is unlike any play you’ve ever seen on Broadway. It’s 75 minutes of an actress sitting on a chair, lip-syncing to a tape of a woman recounting the horrific story of a deranged criminal in Florida abducting her and terrorizing her for five months.
Those intrigued by the show might have some basic questions: Is this really theater? Is the story really true? Is it really worth paying up to $199 per ticket to see?
I don’t have definitive answers for you. But I left the Lyceum exhilarated, thinking: This was an incredible work of theater.
Then I thought more about it.
What makes “Dana H.” exhilarating, I realized, is the performance by Deirdre O’Connell.
For years, O’Connell has been a mainstay of Off-Broadway. In every play in which I’ve seen her perform, she seems effortlessly persuasive, turning her role into an anchor, from the hippy New England teacher in Circle Mirror Transformation to the hardcore Westerner in The Way West to the crazy, haunted Southerner in Terminus. Her performance in “Dana H.” is impressive for its precision: Every verbal stumble and stutter is perfectly coordinated, every gesture and facial expression just right. But her accomplishment is not just technical; as in her previous roles, she manages to inhabit her character, and elicit our empathy. In this case, she does so without even using her own voice. O’Connell has been on Broadway before, but this role (for which she won an Obie when it was Off-Broadway in 2020 at the Vineyard) may finally bring her the attention she’s long deserved.
The voice O’Connell is lip-syncing and the unsettling story she relates belong to Dana Higginbotham, who was interviewed by Steve Cosson, the artistic director of the documentary theater troupe The Civilians. (We also occasionally hear Cosson’s voice, but only in voice-over. No actor is lip-syncing him.) Higginbotham is the mother of Lucas Hnath, who is credited as the author of “Dana H.,” presumably because he edited the tapes and thus shaped the story. We are made aware of this editing because of beeps provided by Mikhail Fiksel, who is credited with audio editing and sound design, and occasional blackouts by lighting designer Paul Toben. At the start of “Dana H.,” we see O’Connell enter onto the set, a non-descript motel room where the interview is perhaps taking place – but it also resembles the series of motel rooms where she was kept during her ordeal.
In 1997, she was working as a chaplain in the psych ward of a hospital, which is how she says she met Jim, a patient at the ward who had attempted suicide. Jim had been raised from the third grade by a relative who was a white supremacist and “taught him how to kill.” He had a long prison record and was so unused to life outside that he didn’t even know how to turn on a light switch. He came to rely on her – until one day he broke into her home through her bathroom window and took her captive.
The bulk of “Dana H.” is a detailed account of her brutalization over the next five months. It’s an incredible story, and I mean that in two senses, including “hard to believe.”
I don’t think it much matters whether “Dana H.” is a factually accurate account of a true event — this is a personal play, not a podcast — but the details provoke all sorts of questions, many of which Dana implicitly or explicitly anticipates. An example: “If you can envision a dog that’s been beaten so much that it no longer even tries to escape, it just sits there, that was me.” Another example: None of the police they encountered ever tried to help her because either, a. Jim was a member of a notorious gang (that the production has requested I not name in this review) so the police were afraid or b. Jim might have been an informant so they were protecting their source. If her recollections seem vague or dubious, she’s trying to remember traumatic events that occurred more than two decades ago; she herself sometimes sounds unsure what happened. There may also be omissions to protect people’s privacy.
“Dana H.” is the companion play to “Is This A Room,” which was also presented first at the Vineyard Theater Off-Broadway, and is now being presented with it in repertory at the Lyceum. Tina Satter’s theater piece is also based on a recording – the transcript of the FBI interrogation of the whistleblower Reality Winner. But Reality Winner’s story, if equally improbable on its face, is well-documented. We must take “Dana H.” on faith.
And “faith” feels like a clue.
Recall, Dana Higginbotham was working as a chaplain for a hospital, a person of faith (although, she tells us strangely, that she was assigned Jim as a client because he was suspected of being a Satanist, and “when I was young I’ve played around in that kind of stuff — Satanism.”)
Hnath is best known for his Tony nominated play, A Doll’s House, Part 2, but his last play in New York before “Dana H.” was “The Thin Place” at Playwrights Horizons in 2019. That play is about a woman who believes she can communicate with the dead, and holds a séance. It’s basically a ghost story, meant to be creepy, scary, other-worldly. Both “The Thin Place” and “Dana H.” are directed by Les Waters, and they feel connected in both theme and effect.
At both the beginning and the end of “Dana H,” Dana (responding to Cosson’s questions) describes her current job working as a chaplain at a hospice, helping terminal patients (and their families) deal with the crossing over to death. She has held this job for twenty years – meaning after the kidnapping. So, why are we hearing so much about it?
At one point, Dana says that she has never really recovered from those five months in 1997. “This is the first time I’m talking about this in all of these years. so I — I’m in — I I I’m in this world but I’m not.” It may explain why she feels she has a special talent for helping people to cross over to the world of the dead. “There’s a sense in which I’ve always been connected to um life beyond this life.” When people are dying, “something absolutely amazing is happening, that’s real and not just imagined, not just a fiction of faith, but it comes into the room….” This also argues for the lip-syncing as more than an avant-garde gimmick. Dana is in two places at once, of this world, and other-worldly.
Lyceum Theater, playing in repertory with Is This A Room through November 28, 2021.
By Lucas Hnath adapted from interviews with Dana Higginbotham conducted by Steve Cosson
Directed by Les Waters
Cast: Deirdre O’Connell
Scenic Design by Andrew Boyce; Costume Design by Janice Pytel; Lighting & Supertitle Design by Paul Toben; Audio Editing & Sound Design by Mikhail Fiksel, Illusions & Lip Sync Consultant: Steve Cuiffo
Running time: 75 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $39 to $199
Photos by Chad Batka