Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

Dana H.

Theatre Review by David Hurst - February 25, 2020

Deirdre O'Connell
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Making her Vineyard Theatre debut in what can only be described as a theatrical tour-de-force, Obie and Drama Desk-winner Deirdre O'Connell is giving the kind of bravura performance people will talk about for decades. Her dazzling achievement is all the more impressive because the play in which she stars, Dana H., assembled by playwright Lucas Hnath and director Les Waters, isn't really a play. Previously seen in Los Angeles and Chicago last year, Dana H. is a taped monologue which has been edited and spliced together to tell the true story of a harrowing period in the life of Hnath's mother, Dana Higginbotham. The voice we hear telling us the story is Higginbotham's, but the person we see inhabiting Hnath's mother on stage is O'Connell, who lip-syncs and acts the entire piece herself.

Hnath, the author of plays as diverse and existential as Hillary and Clinton, A Doll's House, Part 2, The Thin Place, Red Speedo, The Christians, and Isaac's Eye, had been asked in 2015 by Steve Cosson, the artistic director of The Civilians, if he was interested in making a piece of documentary theater. What Cosson didn't know was that there had been an incident in the life of Hnath's mother, a bizarre, horrible, terrifying incident, that would be the perfect subject matter for a piece of documentary theater. But Hnath knew he was too close to his mother to be the one to interview her about what happened, so Cosson was tapped to be the interviewer. It's his voice we hear asking Dana the questions, and it's her voice and her emotional register we hear responding to him and telling her incredulous story.

Higginbotham is a counselor and chaplain who specializes in working with terminally ill patients as well as those with psychiatric diagnoses. In the late 1990s (when Hnath was studying theatre at NYU), she meets and works with a psych patient named Jim, a tatted-up felon who tells her he's a member of the Aryan Brotherhood. Despite Dana's help, Jim is unable to function in the real world. He ends up kidnapping her and dragging her around the country, from seedy motel to seedy motel, for many months. Dana tries to escape multiple times but even law enforcement, who knows who Jim is, is intimated and fear for their safety and the safety of their families. The drama in Dana H. is driven by the question of how Dana will escape and what will happen to her.

Dana H. is divided into three sections: "A Patient Named Jim," "The Next Five Months," and "The Bridge." Throughout, it's virtually impossible to tell O'Connell isn't actually speaking. In addition to lip-syncing every word, she acts every cough, stammer, laugh and pause with convincing ease. Every time she makes a gesture it appears to be the only gesture Dana would be making at that moment in the story. The edits or jumps in the recording are audible and add to the building tension of Dana's captivity. They remind the audience that there are bits and pieces of Cosson and Higginbotham's conversation we're not hearing, and we can't help but wonder what those bits and pieces could be.

Dana H. dramatizes the difficulty of reliving an experience so traumatic that it sets up a battle between the victim's memory and our willingness to believe her. The audience is allowed to draw its own conclusions about her story of survival, and one suspects that's exactly the way Hnath wants it.

Dana H.
Through April 11, 2020
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15 Street
Tickets online and current performance schedule: