By Sarah Downs
Some stories are just so weird that after you hear them you are left with more questions than you had at the beginning. Such is the tale of Dana H. It is a true-life story that in the retelling is surreal to the point of disbelief. Yet believe it we must.
Kidnapped in 1998 by a deeply troubled, suicidal inmate of the psych ward of a hospital at which she was a Chaplain, Dana Higginbotham, the Dana H. of the play’s title, was held captive in a succession of anonymous motels in Florida, crisscrossing the state up to North Carolina and back, as her captor went about his psychotic business. For five months. Isolated, beaten, threatened, and under constant surveillance, Dana had to figure out a way to stay alive.
Playwright Lucas Hnath wisely includes as much of Dana’s personal and emotional context as he can, weaving it throughout the piece in a long-playing reveal. We meet this fascinating, somewhat odd woman and as she describes the nightmare she endured, trapped in the alternate reality of five months on the run against her will, Hnath drops hints to answer some of the innumerable questions that flood our minds. Some questions, however, will forever defy explanation – chief among them, why did no one help her?
Deirdre O’Connell as Dana is extraordinary. She lives and breathes her character. Literally. The central conceit of the play is that O’Connell lip-sync the entire script to the voice of the real Dana as heard on playback from the interviews with Steve Cosson which comprise the substance of the play. A series of beeps punctuate the text, the kind of sound a tape recorder makes in playback/rewind mode. These beeps remind us that two days’ worth of interviews has been of necessity edited down to bring focus to the narrative and fit within a realistic amount of time. Super-titles give us the bare facts, separating the distinct sections of the drama.
O’Connell sits center stage for almost the whole performance, in a classic motel interior, its pastel walls broadcasting more clearly than words that we must be in Florida. Where else would someone paint an interior the color of a flamingo? The script follows the interviews verbatim, including every pause, “um” or throat clearing. Not only does O’Connell have to inhabit a character drawn from a real person, she has to be letter perfect every time. And she is. It’s other worldly. Stripped of one of the major tools of an actor’s trade – her own voice – O’Connell still conveys an authentic, three-dimensional character. For O’Connell’s performance alone, you must see this play.
As the story unfolds, we find ourselves taken down roads we did not know existed, into a world no-one should have to enter. The rhythm builds as the play builds intensity. Andrew Boyce’s set moves from one town to the next without moving a muscle. The motels may be different, but the rooms are all the same. Paul Toben’s lighting design of myriad pastel hues (again, it’s Florida!) transform the space and taunt us with their prettiness. This is the ugliest of stories, and yet the light is peach, then light blue, then pink, then yellow – flickering faster and faster as the interviews begin to overlap. Where will this end for Dana? How will it end? When will it end?
As I say, this is an ugly story, but compellingly dramatized in a rich, layered performance by an immensely skilled actress. It is very much worth seeing; just don’t bring the kids.
Dana H., by Lucas Hnath, adapted from interviews with Dana Higginbotham conducted by Steve Cosson; directed by Les Waters. Starring Deirdre O’Connell. Set design by Andrew Boyce, costume design by Janice Pytel, lighting and supertitle design by Paul Toben, audio editing & sound design by Mikhail Fiksel and illusion & lip sync consultation by Steve Cuiffo.
At the Lyceum Theatre (149 W 45th St.) through January 16, 2022. Tickets available through Telecharge.com. Running time is currently 75 minutes, with no intermission.
Guests must show proof of vaccination and photo ID at their time of entry into the theatre and wear a mask at all times.