Where: Goodman Owen
Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through Oct. 6
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Lucas Hnath’s “Dana H” is one of the most extraordinary experiments in documentary drama you’re ever likely to see. It’s also one of the most disturbing—and not only for the horrifying content.
The 75-minute play is about Hnath’s real-life mother, Dana Higginbotham, who became a hospice chaplain when he went off to New York University in 1997. She sometimes worked on the psychiatric ward, where she met Jim, a gang member and former prisoner who had attempted suicide but claimed he wanted to turn his life around and maybe become a minister. Instead, he ended up abducting her and dragging her from motel to motel in Florida for five months while he committed crimes. Brutally abused both physically and psychologically, she got no help from the police or anyone else until a construction worker finally aided in her escape.
The way the story is told is what’s extraordinary. Feeling he was too close to it, Hnath asked Steve Cosson, artistic director of the Civilians, a New York theater group that specializes in documentary style and was interested in staging the show, to conduct interviews with Dana. Hnath then shaped the transcripts of the interviews into a monologue—but decided it wouldn’t be believed if delivered by an actor, especially since his mother questions her own account even as she’s giving it. So he recut the audio of the interviews into a soundtrack, to which actor Deirdre O’Connell lip-syncs.
Originally commissioned and developed by the Civilians and Goodman, and directed by Les Waters, “Dana H” had its world premiere with Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles in June, and that performance is essentially repeated here. For most of the evening, O’Connell sits in a worn chair in what looks like a cheap motel room (designed by Andrew Boyce) and recounts the events, referring frequently to the manuscript on her lap because, she admits, her memory of the timeline is fuzzy.
Her tone, tinged with self-deprecating irony, is flat and unemotional, and her lip-syncing is so perfect, thanks partly to illusion and lip sync consultant Steve Cuiffo and sound designer Mikhail Fiksel, that within a few minutes we forget that the voice we’re hearing actually in Dana’s—or we would forget were it not for the frequent beeps indicating edits in the tape.
Hnath’s editing, of course, is where some of the artistry comes in, and at some point, we can’t help having questions. Lots of questions. Did everyone she encountered really know and fear her kidnapper as Dana claims? Did she believe he was her protector as she says he claims? How reliable is her memory of what happened? To what extent was she suffering from Stockholm syndrome? Was there really no one she could call for help, for example, her ex-husband or a coworker? And, most crucially, where was her son all this time? Saying he was at college in New York doesn’t seem like a good enough answer and certainly left some in the opening night audience wondering.
In fact, there is more to the story, at least according to a profile of Hnath in the April 2019 “New Yorker.” Worried something was wrong when he talked to his mother on the phone in early 1998, though she was evasive, he found out about her ordeal when he came to Florida for spring break. She had been asking him to write a play about her for a long time since then, though he didn’t find a way to do so until 2016.
Even more unsettling, Hnath actually had met Jim. Feeling hopeful about his reform, Dana had brought him home for Christmas in 1997. Her son recalls he “disliked the man on sight” but thought maybe it was all in his head because “He was very charming. Very jovial.” A sentence in parentheses adds that Dana is unsure of Jim’s whereabouts today.
That left me aghast. Although “Dana H” is an impressive piece of theater that may have healing power for Dana and further Hnath’s (“A Doll’s House, Part 2,” Hillary and Clinton,” etc.) reputation, capturing the mentally unstable criminal who tortured and tormented her would seem to be a very high priority.