Review of Dana H., starring Deirdre O'Connell, at the Vineyard Theatre

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    February 26, 2020
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    Dana H., the harrowing docudrama currently unspooling at the Vineyard Theatre, is a one-woman show performed by two women. As adapted by playwright Lucas Hnath, an audiotape featuring the writer’s mother is lip-synced by a riveting Deirdre O’Connell and together the intertwined ladies relate a tale that is as full of duality as the staging itself. It is both a monster story and a survivor’s account, with a villain as super-human as he is inhuman. It is a chronology of a kidnap victim held in plain site, who finds more safety in her abductor than from the police. And it is a true-story interview with twists that no fiction writer would have the guts to attempt.

    Hnath has a knack for plays that toy with powerful women. A Doll's House, Part 2 brought one of the theater’s earliest liberated housewives back through the door from which she famously exited, while Hillary and Clinton brought the woman who blew up First Lady expectations into an alternate political reality. Where else to turn next, than to his mom. As Edward Albee and Eugene O’Neill proved, the mother-son dynamic can be theatrical dynamite, especially when the mother’s life happens to be a powder keg.

    Dana’s interview, recorded in 2015 with Hnath’s colleague, Steve Cosson, recounts incidents she experienced in 1997. Working in Orlando as a hospital chaplain, she took pity on Jim, a suicide survivor in the psych ward who was also an ex-con member of the Aryan Brotherhood. After letting him spend some time at her own home, she helps him find his own apartment, but he is unable to cope and again tries to kill himself, and again survives, even after losing 80% of his blood, if Dana’s account is accurate. Upon Jim’s recovery, things spiral even further out of control. He knocks Dana unconscious and kidnaps her for what will be a five month period of cheap motels, near getaways, unhelpful cops and brutal physical punishment. 

    When she finally does escape, her recovery period is healing, though nearly as odd as her captivity. Questions abound as to her relationship with both her son and her own mother, but they remain unanswered as she concludes the interview with something of a parable about letting go of pain.

    Dana speaks with the emotional detachment that 18 years can bring, but the hints of her PTSD and her perhaps inexact memory add layers of humanity to this extreme adventure. O’Connell, meanwhile, brings new meaning to the phrase “locked-in performance.” Wearing headphones, Dana’s voice is pumped directly into her ears. Her gestures and physicality are a near perfect match to the soundtrack. It is easy to forget that she is lip-synching, but the fact that she is creates a powerful metaphor about captivity and what it means to be in control of your own actions.

    As directed by Les Waters, with sound design by Mikhail Fiksel, the production employs clever devices to avoid being overly sentimental. In a Brechtian gambit, the recording is full of electronic beeps that pull the audience back from Dana’s storytelling. And Hnath keeps Jim a monstrous mystery. Beyond being adorned with prison tattoos, no physical description is ever provided. Combined with his psychopathic tendencies, amazing recuperative powers and a seemingly buddy-buddy relationship with the police, the audience’s grasp of him is as loose as his grip on Dana was suffocatingly tight.

    (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

    "First impressions might suggest otherwise. But Lucas Hnath’s Dana H., a one-woman drama that explodes expectations at every turn, is one of the richest, most complete works of theater to come along in many seasons. And by its end, you realize that its singular power could be achieved only in real time, on a stage, with a live audience as its witness."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "Les Waters’s expert production places Dana in a seemingly ordinary environment—Andrew Boyce’s realistic motel-room set, with a Pepto-Bismal pink back wall—that contrasts with the increasingly messy and horrific story she tells. Watching Dana H. is like listening to a fascinating true-crime podcast, and part of the interest is in the mysteries that adhere to Dana’s account, which may be distorted by trauma and time."
    Adam Feldman for Time Out New York

    "Deirdre O’Connell is far more proficient at the task of lip syncing to the taped voice of Dana Higginbotham, the mother of playwright Lucas Hnath. There’s not a word, not even a giggle or a sigh, that’s out of place in her astounding performance of Hnath’s new play, Dana H., which opened Tuesday at the Vineyard following productions in Los Angeles and Chicago."
    Robert Hofler for The Wrap