Deirdre O’Connell in ‘Dana H.’ at The Vineyard Theatre. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Perhaps most disturbing about Dana H., the uniquely dramatic interpretation of the abduction of Dana Higginbotham is that pages of Internet searching only yields information about Lucas Hnath’s play, and not a word about the real-life, five-and-half-month trauma endured by its protagonist. It’s a searing example of how victims are victimized as much by those entrusted to protect them as by their assailants.
Playwright Lucas Hnath (Hillary and Clinton, A Doll’s House, Part 2) asked fellow theater-maker Steve Cosson to interview his mother about a series of events that took place more than two decades ago. Those taped interviews have been spliced together to create an audio track. Not a word of dialogue is spoken by actress Deirdre O’Connell, but rather, impeccably lip-synced — a description that barely scratches the surface of O’Connell’s riveting performance.
Dana first met her assailant, Jim, while working as a chaplain in a psychiatric hospital. Prone to violence and a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, Jim had survived a suicide attempt. Upon his release and with nowhere else to go, Dana and her husband invited Jim to spend the night, a kind gesture that would backfire into a nearly deadly ordeal.
Shortly after that, Dana and her husband divorced, leaving her alone in her Florida home. Jim returned, broke through a back window, knocked her unconscious. The following months are a blur of memories: police encounters in which Jim always seemed to talk his way out of, desolate hotel rooms, hit jobs related to his prison and Aryan connections, encounters with police who wouldn’t — or couldn’t because of the law — provide protection. Quite simply, as Dana says, “Nothing was the way it was supposed to be.”
O’Connell, who has been with the production through its Los Angeles and Chicago productions, is nothing short of mesmerizing. One quickly forgets that Dana’s voice is not her own. While her vocal timing is near perfection, it’s the physical embodiment of the thought process that is so compelling to watch. A sigh or jangled bracelet, so subtle on the audio track, becomes a critical part of understanding traumatic recall.
Hnath has trimmed three days of audio files into a lean 75 minutes, which occasionally creates questions about whether anyone inquired about Dana’s whereabouts. The riveting narrative reveals that she felt like “a dog broken so much it no longer tries to escape.” We also gain insight into her survival instinct, informed by a childhood of beatings where her parents told her she was “evil.”
“You adapt to maladaptation,” says Dana, who eventually escapes through the help of stranger at a roadside hotel. But instead of going to the police, who had repeatedly proven inept in protecting her, she joins a construction crew and works on the road for two years.
This season, the Vineyard Theatre is focusing on real-life stories and language from those experiences. Its last production, This Is A Room, lifted text from an FBI transcript regarding the arrest of Reality Winner, an air force vet accused and convicted of leaking top-secret documents concerning Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Dana H. delivers a fascinating and chilling companion piece, reminding audiences that New York City’s nonprofit theaters can offer something wholly unique from their commercial Broadway counterparts.
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Through March 29
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. His culture writing has appeared in Dramatics Magazine and on TDF Stages and ShowTickets.com. Matthew is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a past fellowship recipient from The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.