A play as uncommon, and uncanny, as Lucas Hnath’s “Dana H.” requires an actor of, well, uncommon and uncanny talents. Deirdre O’Connell is just such an actor.
Something of a grande dame of Off Broadway — although I suspect she’d roll her expressive eyes at the notion — O’Connell here gives a performance that seamlessly blends an extraordinary technical acting challenge with the earthiness, plucky everywoman humanity and the subtle spirituality that have often been hallmarks of her work. Both play and performance are a gift we are lucky to receive, as this Broadway season shapes up to be a landmark one for its presentation of unconventional new plays and revelatory performances.
O’Connell’s challenge is built into the play’s unusual concept. It is constructed from a series of interviews with Hnath’s mother, Dana Higginbotham, which were conducted by Steve Cosson, artistic director of The Civilians, and which relate primarily to the abduction of Higginbotham while Hnath was in college. But instead of shaping the interviews into a traditional monologue and handing it to the performer to memorize and deliver onstage, Hnath has spliced together excerpts from the actual recordings to create the play: We hear Higginbotham’s voice, while O’Connell, the sole actor onstage for much of the play, lip-syncs the words.
It may sound like a gimmick; it isn’t. For the story that Dana unfolds in the course of 75 minutes is so disturbing and almost gothic in its horror that it would practically beggar belief if presented in a traditional theatrical format. Hearing the voice of the woman who underwent the experiences she describes — with all the usual pauses, unfinished sentences and fragments that pepper actual conversation, as opposed to often-sculpted stage dialogue — is integral to the play’s jolting sense that it is conveying a real account of what happened to Dana, and how she survived it.
O’Connell enters alongside a technician who helps fix earbuds in her ears. She listens to the recordings as she lip-syncs, although her performance is so stunningly adept that you wouldn’t really know it. The set, by Andrew Boyce, is a modest, generic-looking motel room in Florida. Dana settles into a blue armchair, facing the audience as if we are the interviewer. (Cosson’s voice is occasionally heard asking questions, but he is not represented onstage.)
Dana’s ordeal began when she met a man named Jim while she was working as a chaplain in a psychiatric ward attached to a hospital. He has attempted suicide; she learns that he has been in and out of prison, and is a member of a dangerously violent neo-Nazi organization. (The organization is a real one that the producers have sensibly asked not be named in reviews, although it is in the play.) At first Dana has hope that he can be reformed, and she and her then-husband even invite Jim to spend a few days at their home over the Christmas holidays. But she also instinctively fears him.
Those fears are borne out, horrifically. After a second suicide attempt, Jim breaks into Dana’s home when she is alone and proceeds to attack her. And so begins a harrowing five-month ordeal during which Dana is kidnapped, forced to witness various crimes, and subjected to brutal violence and sexual assault. She makes several desperate attempts to alert others, including multiple police officers, to her predicament, but to little avail. The play is at once a dark study in the psychology of victimhood and a disturbing depiction of how the world at large can ignore a woman’s subjection and abuse — by extension any woman’s subjection and abuse — even when the signs are as glaring as a flashing neon light just inches away.
The production, directed with an understated, steady hand by Les Waters, includes a scene that symbolizes the indifference or simple blindness of the people Dana attempts to signal her plight. After Dana has recounted a particularly grisly incident, the stage goes dark, she disappears from the stage, and we watch a maid clean up the disordered room, tossing a blood-soaked sheet casually into a laundry bag, her face a blank mask.
Some of the details are too appalling to describe. But while certainly emotionally upsetting, the play, thanks to the remarkable nature of Dana herself, and O’Connell’s equally remarkable performance, can at times be oddly inspiring. The psychological and spiritual fortitude that somehow radiates from Dana’s mostly matter-of-fact recounting of these events, which is matched by O’Connell’s unadorned, firmly grounded performance, wraps the play in a layer of eerie calm. Even when describing the most brutal experiences she underwent, Dana’s voice remains level. She even displays both sharp insight and a grim humor.
Dana’s reflections about how she came to see Jim as he wanted her to see him — as her “protector” — are perhaps the most agonizing passages in the play, as she recounts a deeply unhappy childhood and notes “how women victims are very often blamed or held responsible for the things that happen to them.” She was so inured to being mistreated, and expecting “evil around every corner,” that Jim was “almost the incarnation of my spiritual condition,” she says.
Then she gives a bleak little laugh. It’s impossible to echo that laugh.
Or maybe the even more agonizing passage is the one in which Dana confesses that, even now, she feels herself to be a woman apart, marked by an experience that no one else can share and she cannot bring herself to talk about. “I’m tired of being out of the world,” she says. “I want to be in it again.”
And yet “Dana H.” ends on a note of unexpected grace, as Dana returns to her later career as a hospice chaplain. She doesn’t suggest it, but you might conclude that Dana’s suffering — although you would surely wish it undone — has somehow raised her to a spiritual plane that gives her the rare gift of comforting people when they are also in extremis, enduring life’s final and irrevocable ordeal.
“Dana H.” opened at the Lyceum Theatre on Oct. 17, 2021.
Review photo: Chad Batka.
Creative: Written by Lucas Hnath; Adapted from Interviews with Dana Higginbotham; Interviews Conducted by Steve Cosson; Directed by Les Waters; Scenic Design by Andrew Boyce; Costume Design by Janice Pytel; Lighting & Supertitle Design: Paul Toben; Audio Editing & Sound Design: Mikhail Fiksel.
Producers: Matt Ross, Sally Horchow, Dori Berinstein, Elizabeth Armstrong, Jane Dubin, Horchow Family Productions, Thomas Kail, Corinne Nevinny & Victoria Nevinny, Plate Spinner Productions, Bill Prady, Rocco Productions, Craig Balsam, Randy Best/Diamond Dog Entertainment, Gould Family/David Lyons, Richard Phillips/ZKM Media and the Shubert Organization.
Cast: Deirdre O’Connell.