By Tulis McCall
I have pretty much liked everything I have seen Deirdre O’Connell do. Let us add Dana H. to the list. As a matter of fact you can put it at the top.
This is a play that has been urged into being by Lucas Hnath. Dana Higginbotham is his mother, and she was held captive by a man named Jim back in the 1990’s when Lucas was in college. He was unaware. Years later, Hnath asked Steve Cosson to interview Higginbothom. This play is the edited result.
This story is told in Dana’s words with a few subtitles projected above. (“A Patient Named Jim,” “The Next Five Months,” “The Bridge”). Not only is it told in her words, her voice is the voice we hear. O’Connell is set up with earbuds so she can listen only to Higginbothom’s, which she mouths. She tells Cosson that she has never told this to anyone, not even her son. She has written it out on paper to give herself reference points. Otherwise she would be lost.
Higginbotham was the chaplain for a hospice in Florida and often worked with patients in a psych ward. Jim was one of those patients. When he was released he was, in a word, un prepared. He fell into that huge gap between incarceration and freedom – the one where a person who does not know how to care for himself, who does not know anything except being in a cell, is suddenly without a rudder, a home, friends – anyone or anything who can tether him to the earth.
The only person he had was Dana who did her best to help him get a rom and a job. When that wasn’t enough, and she refused more aide, he broke into her home, clobbered her and took her away. But soon it was something more than a kidnapping. Dana was trapped. She tried to get away several times but was always discovered and brought back until the urge to flee dimmed. She was beaten and raped. She was sucked into Jim’s various violent acts. The air was sucked out of her lungs and her heart.
Thoughts begin to leak out during the interview. “Whatever I got I deserved.” “You adapt to maladaptive.” “Maybe getting beat up saved me.” Maybe it was “the incarnation of my spiritual condition”. She is telling her story because she wants to be part of the world again because at the moment of this telling she is not.
These intimate admissions are shattering – not only for the words but because of O’Connell’s performance. In every other performance I have seen, I have never forgotten who I was watching. O’Connell maintains her presence as a unique person on every stage. In this performance, however, O’Connell disappears. She vanishes. In her wake she leave us with a woman who was snatched into a world that is closer than any of us would like to think.
Dana H. eventually got away – of course – but in this play she is a woman suspended between two worlds. And we feel every square inch of both. This is a delicate strand of a story we cannot un-see. Try though we might.
Dana H. By Lucas Hnath; Adapted from interviews with Dana Higginbotham Conducted by Steve Cosson; Directed by Les Waters
WITH Deirdre O’Connell
Scenic design by Andrew Boyce, costume design byJanice Pytel, lighting and supertitle design by Paul Toben, and sound design by Mikhail Fiksel.
Tickets Through April 11 at Vineyard Theater, Manhattan; 212-353-0303. Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes.