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Theater review by Adam Feldman
Earlier this season, in The Thin Space, Lucas Hnath looked at channeling the dead. His latest play, the uncanny and deeply unsettling Dana H., channels the living. Its subject is harrowingly personal. In 1997, when Hnath was in college, his mother, Dana Higgenbotham, was beaten and held captive for five months by a violent criminal and Aryan Brotherhood gang member named Jim. (They had met when, working as a chaplain, she had counseled him after a suicide attempt.) In 2015, Steve Cosson, of the docutheater troupe the Civilians, interviewed her about this ordeal. Their conversations form the basis of Dana H., but instead of editing them into a conventional script, Hnath has kept them in audio form. In the title role, Deirdre O’Connell does not speak a word; for 75 minutes, calmly facing us in an armchair, she lip-syncs to Dana’s actual voice.
O’Connell is simply astonishing. Long-form lip-sync is not new—one thinks of Bradford Louryk’s Christine Jorgensen Reveals, Lypsinka’s The Passion of the Crawford, much of the Wooster Group’s oeuvre—but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done quite so unshowily. This is a performance of virtuoso naturalism; the technique is so perfect that it disappears. At many points in the show, I would have believed O’Connell was talking into a body mic, even though Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design makes it clear that we’re listening to an edited recording. (The actor and magician Steve Cuiffo is credited as her lip-sync consultant.) The effect of this device is complex: The use of Dana’s voice gives her testimony a gripping sense of reality, even as its ventriloquism through O’Connell’s body suggests an eerie sense of dissociation.
Les Waters’s expert production places Dana in a seemingly ordinary environment—Andrew Boyce’s realistic motel-room set, with a Pepto-Bismal pink back wall—that contrasts with the increasingly messy and horrific story she tells. Watching Dana H. is like listening to a fascinating true-crime podcast, and part of the interest is in the mysteries that adhere to Dana’s account, which may be distorted by trauma and time. There are many things she can’t explain about what happened to her; at times you wonder what she is leaving out or, perhaps, what Hnath has chosen not to include. This is a woman of resilient Christian faith but also a woman with demons—she casually mentions having dabbled in satanism—and a complicated history. (She was “pretty well prepped” for the physical abuse she suffered at Jim’s hands, she says, by the beatings she received as a child.) And she’s a survivor, but not completely. By the end of Dana H., you understand why she now works in hospice care, providing final comfort to people on the edge of death. She’s been there, and she carries it with her still. She's self-possessed.
Vineyard Theatre (Off Broadway). By Lucas Hnath. Directed by Les Waters. With Deirdre O'Connell. Running time: 1hr 15mins. No intermission.