Review: ‘Dana H.’ leads us into the underworld

A piece as rare and strange as “Dana H” by Lucas Hnath. requires an actor with talent, well, unusual and weird. Deirdre O’Connell is such an actor.

Something of a grande dame of Off Broadway – although I suspect she would roll her eyes at that notion – O’Connell gives here a performance that perfectly mixes an extraordinary technical challenge of acting with the earth, l brave humanity of each woman and the subtle spirituality which has often been the hallmark of her work. The play and the performance are a gift we are fortunate to receive, as this Broadway season is shaping up to be a landmark for its presentation of new unconventional plays and eye-opening performances.

O’Connell’s challenge is built into the play’s unusual concept. It is built from a series of interviews with Hnath’s mother, Dana Higginbotham, which were conducted by Steve Cosson, artistic director of The Civilians, and which primarily relate to the kidnapping of Higginbotham while Hnath was at the ‘university. But instead of turning the interviews into a traditional monologue and handing it over to the performer to memorize and deliver on stage, Hnath put together snippets of the actual recordings to create the piece: we hear Higginbotham’s voice, while that O’Connell, the only actor on stage for much of the play, synchronizes the words with the lips.

It may look like a gadget; This is not the case. For the story that Dana unfolds over the course of 75 minutes is so disturbing and almost gothic in its horror that it would be virtually implausible if presented in a traditional theatrical format. Hearing the voice of the woman who has lived through the experiences she describes – with all the usual pauses, unfinished sentences, and fragments that dot the actual conversation, as opposed to the oft-carved stage dialogues – is integral to the jerky feeling of the piece she passes on is a true account of what happened to Dana and how she survived it.

O’Connell walks in alongside a technician who is helping fix the headphones in his ears. She listens to the recordings during lip-syncing, though her performance is so surprisingly skillful that you wouldn’t really know it. The set, by Andrew Boyce, is a modest, generic Florida motel room. Dana sits down in a blue armchair, facing the audience as if we were the interviewer. (Cosson’s voice can sometimes be heard asking questions, but he’s not pictured on stage.)

Dana’s ordeal began when she met a man named Jim when she worked as a chaplain in a psychiatric ward attached to a hospital. He tried to kill himself; she learns that he has been in and out of prison and that he is a member of a dangerously violent neo-Nazi organization. (The organization is real, and the producers have wisely requested not to be named in reviews, despite being in the play.) At first, Dana is hopeful that he can be reformed, and she and her husband from the era even invite Jim to spend a few days with them during the Christmas holidays. But she also instinctively fears him.

These fears are confirmed, horribly. After a second suicide attempt, Jim breaks into Dana’s house while she is alone and proceeds to attack. And so begins a heartbreaking five-month ordeal in which Dana is kidnapped, forced to witness various crimes and subjected to brutal violence and sexual assault. She makes several desperate attempts to alert others, including several police officers, to her plight, but to no avail. The play is both a grim study of the psychology of victimization and a disturbing description of how the world at large can ignore a woman’s submission and abuse – by extension the submission and abuse of any woman – even when the signs are as glaring as a flashing neon. light a few centimeters away.

The production, run with a low-key and firm hand by Les Waters, includes a scene that symbolizes the indifference or sheer blindness of the people Dana tries to point out her plight. After Dana recounts a particularly gruesome incident, the scene darkens, she disappears from the stage, and we watch a maid cleaning the messy room, casually throwing a blood-soaked sheet into a laundry bag, her face a blank mask.

Some details are too appalling to describe. But while certainly emotionally upsetting, the piece, thanks to the remarkable nature of Dana herself and the equally remarkable performance of O’Connell, can be eerily inspiring at times. The psychological and spiritual courage that somehow emanates from Dana’s essentially factual account of these events, which is matched by O’Connell’s unadorned and firmly grounded performance, wraps the play in a layer. of strange calm. Even when she describes the most brutal experiences she has endured, Dana’s voice remains even. She even displays both insight and grim humor.

Dana’s thoughts on how she came to see Jim the way he wanted her to see him – as her “protector” – are perhaps the play’s most distressing passages, as she tells of a deeply unhappy childhood. and notes “how female victims are very often blamed or held accountable for things that happen to them. She was so used to being mistreated and expecting “trouble around every corner,” that Jim was “almost the embodiment of my spiritual condition,” she said.

Then she gives a dull little laugh. It is impossible to echo this laughter.

Or maybe the even more distressing passage is the one in which Dana confesses that even now she feels like a woman apart, marked by an experience that no one else can share and that she can’t bring herself to talk about. . “I’m tired of being out of the world,” she said. “I want to be there again.”

And yet “Dana H.” ends on an unexpected note of grace, as Dana returns to her later career as a hospice chaplain. She doesn’t suggest it, but you might conclude that Dana’s suffering – although you would surely wish it to be undone – somehow elevated her to a spiritual plane that gives her the rare gift of comforting people when they do. are also in extremis, enduring the end of life. and irrevocable proof.

“Dana H.” opened at the Lyceum Theater on October 17, 2021.

Critic photo: Chad Batka.

Creation: Written by Lucas Hnath; Adapted from interviews with Dana Higginbotham; Interviews conducted by Steve Cosson; Directed by Les Waters; Stage design by Andrew Boyce; Costume design by Janice Pytel; Lighting design and surtitles: Paul Toben; Audio editing and sound design: Mikhail Fiksel.

Producers: Matt Ross, Sally Horchow, Dori Berinstein, Elizabeth Armstrong, Jane Dubin, Horchow Family Productions, Thomas Kail, Corinne Nevinny & Victoria Nevinny, Plate Spinner Productions, Bill Prady, Rocco Productions, Craig Balsam, Randy Best / Diamond Dog Entertainment, Gould Family / David Lyons, Richard Phillips / ZKM Media and the Shubert organization.

Actors: Deirdre O’Connell.


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