“Dana H.” by Lucas Hnath on Broadway

Deirdre O’Connell in Dana H.
Photo: Chad Batka

Some small productions work best in the spaces where they were built. Getting a play from a small theater to a large one is risky – the magic of an intimate performance can fail when trying to increase in size. This is not the case with Dana H. however, the unlikely crown jewel of this bizarre Broadway season. The jaw-dropping and brilliant show only got somehow stronger as it moved to Broadway from the Vineyard Theater, where its 2020 airing was cut short by the pandemic.

Maybe that’s because the cold splendor of a Broadway house provides such a good visual metaphor. The theatrical layout of Dana H. is simple: actor Deirdre O’Connell sits in a chair facing the audience, in lip sync with an interview with Dana Higginbotham, the mother of playwright Lucas Hnath. Dana’s account of five hellish months in 1998 is full of moments when she tried to get help and people were turned away. By placing little O’Connell in a low ceiling against the Lyceum’s stacked golden balconies, the production makes it clear how dangerous all this massive, still silence is for someone in distress. The audience rises row after row, a tsunami twinkling with two thousand eyes.

At the very beginning, we are told via the surtitle that everything we hear is real. (How much is exactly correct is another question, one that has no obvious answer even to the woman speaking.) Hnath – best known for his A doll’s house, part 2 – asked coworker Steve Cosson to interview Dana about something that happened to her over 20 years ago, when Hnath was on leave from college. The broadcast audio is Hnath’s edited condensation of this two-day conversation; we hear the small beeps of the clips that start and stop.

O’Connell synchronizes the result exactly: she tinkles her bracelets when something tinkles, slips into her purse in muffled moments, laughs out loud just like Dana does. Precision is only part of its performance, however. O’Connell has long been downtown’s most transparent actress – she’s the sweet-eyed Streep of Off Broadway, if Meryl had a pile of Pre-Raphaelite hair and a dirty chuckle. Here, O’Connell goes beyond even what she’s done before. Sa Dana is a pipeline. You sometimes forget that the voice does not belong to the body in front of you, but when you to do remember, his performance takes on an even deeper intimacy.

Twenty-three years ago, Dana, a hospice chaplain, worked as a spiritual counselor in a psychiatric ward in Florida. A heavily tattooed, methamphetamine addicted suicide patient named Jim has claimed he is looking for his way to grace. Visions danced in Dana’s head. Could she attract this man, with his history of incarceration, violence and white supremacy, to the light?

I kinda thought to myself

although it would be a great addition to my ministry

if he really made it out,

convert and and uh

come back to some form of normalcy, uh

that the two of us could have some kind of evangelical alliance uh

that it would be very powerful.

After trying to get Jim back on his feet, Dana only succeeds in making her safety blanket – life outside the prison completely overwhelms her – and a prisoner. One horrible night, he pokes his head first out of his bathroom window and takes it off, dragging it with him through a bad season of constant travel, brutal assaults, and bloody confusion. Every time she runs, he chases her. His parents will not help him; there is nowhere she can go to escape her seemingly endless network of white nationalist confederates. After the cops repeatedly fail to save her, she comes to believe that the police are either complicit or just scared. “I mean, see how my world – everything that was meant to be right wasn’t,” she said. “Nothing worked. Nothing was as it was meant to be. When I saw Dana H. in February 2020, it looked like the paranoia of a battered woman, a symptom of her isolation or Jim’s grandiose fantasies. But I realize now that I was the naive – every day we find out more about how the neo-Nazi right is tightly wrapped around the spinal cord of our country.

True crime podcasts and a billion seasons of Law and order I didn’t prepare you to hear how a man can turn a woman’s life into a nightmare; this game introduces you to the inside of one. Dana H. acts as a portal between realities. Set designer Andrew Boyce puts O’Connell in an anonymous motel room painted a horrible intestinal rose, and it takes a while to realize that it’s a room between occupants, a non-place in limbo. Dana herself is a threshold figure: she tells us about her pastoral capacity to speak to the dying, to help them connect to the living world even as they let go. Speaking to us, she also becomes a bridge between the America we choose to see and the country as it really is.

At one point, director Les Waters interrupts O’Connell with a sort of existential disco madness, when the lights of Paul Toben and the sound of Mikhail Fiksel seem to go haywire. This stylistic break is the only moment in the series that I see as a flaw, although it may exist just to give us some mental relief. It comes after Dana tells us about a horrible night when Jim rapes her and suffocates her until she passes out with a flashlight. (When I saw it, some women left at this point – this is the rare show that should caution viewers.) Strangulation is often a sign that an abuser is trying to kill his victim; its effects also include mental fog and confusing narratives which can cause people to disbelieve women. Unreality certainly haunts Dana – both her own inability to credit the horrors that have befallen her and the unconvincing nature of her current life, now she has seen how thin the earth is beneath her feet. Dana holds up a stack of papers, a tale she wrote in 2013 after a blackout, referring to it whenever she needed to adjust her schedule. But even here she didn’t really writes his story, right? On the script title page, she is not credited as the author.

both testimony and theatrical construction, Dana H. raises a hundred questions about fatherhood, violence, voice. The moral obscurity of converting Dana Higginbotham’s actual speech into entertainment swirls around the production, just like our unease (or is that lascivious interest?) At listening to her. The show grabs you too – having seen it before, I can testify that months later you always be under its control. And look… Broadway isn’t usually like that. How the hell did a show like Dana H. (and his repertoire companion, Is it a room) close to Bubba Gump Shrimp? This can only happen because we are in a strange introductory period, where the usual investment logic has been turned upside down. Without tourists, without the realistic hope of winning huge sums, the programming of the chic districts has had the chance to be strange, wild and pure. Producers have stopped reporting box office numbers, so we’re left with the intangible metrics to rely on. I have no idea how many tickets they sell, but judging only by the way my hands were shaking as I took notes, Dana H. is the smash of the season.

Dana H. is at the Lyceum Theater.

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