Gertrude and Irving Dimson Theatre
108 East 15th St. between Union Square East & Irving Pl.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 29, $45-$120
Searching for a way to tell a remarkable true story about his mother — at his mother’s request — playwright Lucas Hnath came up with an ingenious solution. In 2015, Hnath’s friend and frequent collaborator Steve Cosson, the artistic director of the New York–based “investigative theater” company the Civilians, interviewed Hnath’s mother and muse, Dana Higginbotham, focusing on her 1997 abduction by a man identified only as Jim, a dangerous, suicidal ex-con and member of the Aryan Brotherhood. Using a precisely edited version of the recorded interview, Hnath and director Les Waters (Evocation to Visible Appearance, Recent Alien Abductions) have created the mesmerizing Dana H., a seventy-five-minute play unlike anything you’ve ever seen — or heard — before.
The play takes place in a 1990s-era ordinary motel room, with bed, sink, bathroom, dresser, and a chair front and center. (The set design is by Andrew Boyce, with vivid lighting by Paul Toben and affecting sound by Mikhail Fiksel.) Obie and Drama Desk winner Deirdre O’Connell spends nearly the entire show sitting in the chair, wearing earphones. She lip-synchs everything that comes out of Higginbotham’s mouth through multiple speakers, every word, sigh, breath, stumble, and laugh. (She was coached on the lip-synching by Steve Cuiffo, who has worked with John “Lypskinka” Epperson.)
It might be a very serious topic, but Higginbotham, a minister, relates it with a certain degree of distance, often explaining what were likely deeply emotional events in an almost matter-of-fact way, recounting the story more than reliving it, which makes sense, given what she went through. O’Connell shifts her body slightly at times, imagining how Higginbotham might have been moving as she spoke with Cosson, occasionally reaching into her purse. Not missing the slightest sound is miraculous in itself, since live theater depends on a unique relationship between actor and audience, so she cannot adjust her performance based on the reactions of the crowd. She can’t even cough or sneeze without potentially losing pace with the prerecorded voice she is matching. It doesn’t take long before you think that O’Connell is Higginbotham; the novelty of the technology wears off and the two women have become one. (In fact, they did not meet each other in person until the play’s world premiere opening night in June 2019 at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City, California.)
Higginbotham was a psych ward chaplain when she first met and treated Jim. When he was released and had nowhere to go for Christmas, Higginbotham invited him to stay with her and her second husband, Rick Hnath, Lucas’s stepfather. Jim tried to make it out in the real world, but his failures mounted and one day he kidnapped Higginbotham and took off on a crime spree. Her tale of what happened during the abduction, including interactions with police, is horrifying as she develops a hostage mentality. “You adapt to maladaptation,” she says.
Admitting that she suffers from PTSD, she is, of course, an unreliable narrator, though you have no reason to not believe her. Higginbotham has an innate gift for storytelling, filling in gaps and anticipating plot-driven questions to ensure a taut narrative structure, though you will still leave wondering about certain unanswered elements, including how Lucas, who was born Lucas Blanche in 1979 in Miami, fit in her life in the immediate aftermath of the events. Hnath (A Doll’s House Part 2, The Christians), who actually met Jim when he came home from winter break at NYU back in 1998, has chosen not to discuss his involvement in his mother’s story in various interviews he has given over the last year, but his presence hovers throughout the theater, both in the past and the present.
Coincidentally, Dana H. follows Tina Satter’s Is This A Room at the Vineyard, a play in which all the dialogue is taken verbatim from the FBI transcripts of the bureau’s interrogation of Reality Winner regarding leaked classified documents, as well as Hnath’s The Thin Place at Playwrights Horizons, in which one of the main characters is a woman who spends most of the show sitting in a chair, trying to contact her deceased mother via a medium. But Dana H. exists in its own universe. It is a superb, grandly unique work of art, a brilliant foray into trauma and physical and sexual abuse, as the brave Higginbotham, superbly portrayed by O’Connell (Fulfillment Center, Circle Mirror Transformation), shares her horrific struggle trapped in extreme, violent situations and ultimately survives. “A person who can be an empathetic witness can bring healing,” she says. It can also make for great theater, in the right hands.