In the playwright’s notes to Hillary and Clinton, which premiered at Victory Gardens in 2016 before its Broadway run last spring, Lucas Hnath implored future producers, “Do not play for easy recognition. Don’t imitate. Don’t even try to cast actors who look like these people.”
That’s probably sound advice to avoid onstage caricatures of famous people. But when the character onstage is your own mother and the words are her own story, how do you honor that?
In the case of Hnath’s searing Dana H., now onstage at the Goodman’s Owen Theatre (following a run with Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles), the solution is to have Deirdre O’Connell lip-synch her way through his mother’s account of the five months in 1997 when she was kidnapped by a former mental patient (and, crucially, an ex-con member of the Aryan Brotherhood) and moved around a series of sleazy motels, mostly in Florida. Dana Higginbotham was a nondenominational chaplain who met Jim in a psych ward after the latter attempted suicide. She let him stay in her house over Christmas and helped him find an efficiency apartment. After another suicide attempt (captured in photos that O’Connell’s Dana pulls from her purse), a manic Jim broke into her house, knocked her out cold, and took her hostage.
The lip-synching device—though calling it that makes it sound clinical, when it’s anything but—serves not to distance us from Dana’s story, but to surround us with her voice. The interviews with Dana were recorded by Steve Cosson of the New York-based theater company the Civilians, which specializes in “investigative theater,” and adapted by Hnath. Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design gives both volume and subtlety to Dana as she makes her way through a story that, even more than 20 years later, often feels unbelievable to her. And as we hear it, it becomes enragingly unfathomable to us.
O’Connell’s performance under Les Waters’s direction embodies both the doubt and the resilience in Dana as she fiddles with her glasses, twists a water bottle in her hands, and occasionally refers to her own written version of events, apologizing for the fuzziness of the time line she’s recounting. It’s not uncommon for victims of trauma to disconnect physically and feel as if their story is happening to someone else. Centering Dana’s actual voice while using another woman’s physical presence is a way for Hnath to both honor his mother’s experience in her own words (crucial when women’s accounts of violence and abuse are routinely discounted) and embody that disconnect.
The uncertainty of the time line matters less than what emerges over and over in Dana’s narrative: the cops, to put it bluntly, were useless, if not complicit. Time and again, police pull Jim (who has resumed his criminal activities) aside, even as a badly bruised and silent Dana stands by him, only to let him go on his way with a pat on the shoulder and a laugh. Sickeningly, it becomes apparent that his visible Brotherhood prison tats aren’t a warning sign, or at least not the way we might think.
In Dana’s telling, the cops are afraid of the Brotherhood—and from what she recounts of a documentary she saw about them, maybe with good reason. Eventually, Dana begins wondering if Jim isn’t actually an informant for law enforcement, which means whatever hell she’s going through is just collateral damage to them.
Dana witnesses Jim’s criminal activity, but this isn’t a story of Stockholm syndrome, a la Patty Hearst. Nor does the narrative dwell on many details of the violence Dana directly experiences, except in one very specific gut-wrenching instance. A survivor of childhood abuse, at one point Dana ponders if that somehow made it easier for her to survive Jim (who was himself raised in the Brotherhood from an early age) than it would be for some “Barbie” who’d never been hit before. “You adapt to maladaptation,” she observes, with heartbreaking understatement, while also wondering if “Jim was the incarnation of my spiritual condition.”
There is hope in this story too, but that comes from Dana’s own ability to listen to others; her specialty as a chaplain is in hospice care, helping those close to death find peace. “A person who can be an empathetic witness can bring healing,” she observes. By trusting the audience to listen to his mother’s story, Hnath asks us to find empathy for those trapped in cycles of abuse, and believe their voices. v
This review has been amended to correctly reflect the year Dana Higginbotham was kidnapped. It was 1997, not 1998.