Goodman's 'Dana H.' an unsettling, intriguing survivor's tale

  • Deirdre O'Connell plays the titular character in Lucas Hnath's "Dana H.," inspired by his mother's tale of kidnapping and abuse. The co-production between Goodman Theatre and the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles runs through Oct. 6.

    Deirdre O'Connell plays the titular character in Lucas Hnath's "Dana H.," inspired by his mother's tale of kidnapping and abuse. The co-production between Goodman Theatre and the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles runs through Oct. 6. Courtesy of Craig Schwartz

 
 
Updated 9/23/2019 6:11 AM

"Dana H." -- ★ ★ ★

Before Lucas Hnath's unsettling, emotionally riveting "Dana H." opened this week at the Goodman Theatre, word about its unconventional performance style was already out.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

That performance style requires Deirdre O'Connell, the titular Dana, to lip sync to an audio recording of the real-life Dana Higginbotham (Hnath's mother), the central character in a play about a woman kidnapped and held captive by a violent, ex-felon for five months. Hnath's theatrical approach, however unique, sounded like a gimmick.

But there is nothing gimmicky about O'Connell's extraordinary performance in this intriguingly told, unquestionably harrowing survivor's tale by the award-winning Hnath ("Hillary and Clinton," "A Doll's House, Part 2") chronicling events hospice chaplain Higginbotham says happened to her in 1997. Decades later, Higginbotham recalled the story in a series of taped interviews with theater-maker Steve Cosson, artistic director of New York City's The Civilians. Hnath subsequently shaped her statements into "Dana H.," which Goodman produced in association with Los Angeles' Center Theatre Group where the play premiered last June.

Reprising the role she created in Los Angeles, O'Connell received two curtain calls following Monday's opening directed by Hnath collaborator Les Waters. Seamlessly attuned to Higginbotham's voice, O'Connell's every shrug, flinch, gesture and inflection is expertly measured and perfectly matched to the recording. So cohesive is her performance, one forgets she's not using her voice. It's quite impressive.

Equally impressive is the work of illusion and lip sync consultant Steve Cuiffo and sound designer Mikhail Fiksel, who together with lighting designer Paul Toben, orchestrates a disturbing crescendo of utterances and flickering lights that occurs late in the play. This expresses the torment victims endure better than any line of dialogue.

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Deirdre O'Connell stars in "Dana H." in the world premiere of Lucas Hnath's play in Goodman Theatre's co-production with the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles.
Deirdre O'Connell stars in "Dana H." in the world premiere of Lucas Hnath's play in Goodman Theatre's co-production with the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles. - Courtesy of Craig Schwartz

Endurance is a key component in this multifaceted work, which is essentially about survival. It recounts Higginbotham's story of the emotional and physical abuse she says she suffered at the hands of a suicidal Aryan Brotherhood member named Jim. She says he kidnapped her from her Orlando, Florida, home and held her captive for five months in a series of nondescript motel rooms from North Carolina to Florida.

She recalls meeting Jim in 1997 on a hospital psychiatric ward where she served as chaplain. After his release, Dana and her then-husband invited Jim to their home for Christmas. She subsequently helped Jim settle into an apartment and a job. She says he repaid her by breaking into her home, beating and kidnapping her.

Over 75 uninterrupted minutes, Dana recalls a living hell of emotional intimidation, physical abuse and sexual assault in cringe-inducing detail. Asking for help from a police officer, she was told: "you know it's just your word against his." The story, which abuse victims, females in particular, likely recognize, was among several that elicited gasps from the audience.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I accepted that this was my life," she says in a heartbreaking expression of defeat and shame.

Aided by a construction worker, she escaped her captor after five months. She says she spent the next 2 years working construction and sleeping in her car while having little contact with others. Eventually she got another job as a chaplain.

In the play, Higginbotham also shares personal details about childhood abuse she says she suffered. She acknowledges "playing around" with Satanism and she admits confusion over the timeline of her ordeal.

"I have a lot of snapshots in my mind … I'm not sure of the order of things," she says.

But those inconsistencies diminish neither the emotional nor the theatrical impact of "Dana H." And they're unsurprising coming from a traumatized person. Higginbotham fits that description, right up to the fear and post-traumatic stress she says kept her silent until 2013.

"It changed who I was," she says. "I can't be who I am. I can't tell people this. No one knows me."

It's an agonizing admission, powerfully expressed by O'Connell in a performance I expect will long resonate with audiences.

One final note: In the program, Hnath characterizes the play as a "black box recording; you watch it and there will not be any additional information about it."

"I am asking that people receive it as a story on its own terms and not seek out supplementary information," Hnath says.

His statement suggests he's disinclined to answer questions that Higginbotham's account raises. Such as: Did she have contact with Hnath or other family members or friends during her three-year absence? Was she considered missing? If so, did anyone look for her? Did she tell authorities about crimes in which she says Jim implicated himself? Was he ever convicted of kidnapping and abuse?

I realize those questions shift focus to the perpetrator when it should be on the survivor. Perhaps another play will answer them.

• • •

Location: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800 or goodman theatre.org

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 6. Also 7:30 p.m. Sept. 29

Tickets: $15-$45

Running time: About 75 minutes, no intermission

Parking: $22 with Goodman validation at the Government Self Park at Lake and Clark streets

Rating: For adults; includes mature subject matter, descriptions of violence and sexual assault

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