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Bold staging idea for ‘Dana H.’ makes kidnapping story more authentic, more unsettling

Playwright Lucas Hnath shapes the real-life narrative as told in the actual voice of its victim, his mother.

Deirdre O’Connell stars as the real-life Dana Higginbotham in the world premiere of Lucas Hnath’s “Dana H.,” directed by Les Waters at the Goodman Theatre.
Deirdre O’Connell stars as the real-life Dana Higginbotham in the world premiere of Lucas Hnath’s “Dana H.,” directed by Les Waters at the Goodman Theatre.
© 2019 Craig Schwartz

Lucas Hnath is undoubtedly not the first playwright to have his mother suggest he write a play about her. He may well be the first to have his mother suggest he write a play about her kidnapping. Which is what he’s done — with some unorthodox formal twists of his own — in his deeply unsettling new play “Dana H.,” now on stage at the Goodman.

At an age that in playwriting terms would still qualify as “early career” (he turned 40 this year), Hnath is ubiquitous on stages across the country. American Theatre magazine determined that he was the most-produced playwright in the nation for the 2018–2019 season, with 33 productions — 27 of those being his cheeky Henrik Ibsen sequel “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” following on its 2017 Broadway run.

His plays take on a dizzying variety of subjects: “Hillary and Clinton,” first produced at Victory Gardens in early 2016, imagines an alternate-universe version of the 2008 Democratic primaries; “The Christians,” staged later that year at Steppenwolf, is set in an evangelical megachurch; “Isaac’s Eye,” seen in 2014 at Writers Theatre, is a postmodern portrait of a young Isaac Newton.

But they share an eagerness to subvert the traditional structures of American theater, as well as a tendency to use their characters — often borrowed from Ibsen or politics or history — as mouthpieces for intellectual debate. Hnath can seem to keep a distance between himself and his characters; you rarely sense the playwright taking sides.

Which makes “Dana H.,” which would appear to be Hnath’s most personal work to date, all the more fascinating for the choices he makes in tackling it.

The basic facts, or as close as we get to them, are these: In 1997, after Hnath had left for his freshman year at New York University, his mother, Dana Higginbotham, was a hospital chaplain back home in Orlando. Dana had been counseling a psych ward patient and violent ex-con named Jim who had been hospitalized after a suicide attempt. Jim later abducted her from her home and kept her on the run with him for five months, skipping from motel to motel from Florida to North Carolina and back, before she was able to escape.

Deirdre O’Connell in Lucas Hnath’s “Dana H,” directed by Les Waters at the Goodman Theatre.
Deirdre O’Connell in Lucas Hnath’s “Dana H.,” at the Goodman Theatre.
© 2019 Craig Schwartz

According to a recent New Yorker profile, Hnath’s mother asked him to turn this story into a play, even though she’d kept most of its details to herself for 20 years. Perhaps sensing that she would speak more freely to a neutral party, Hnath turned to Steve Cosson, the artistic director of the Civilians, a New York City–based troupe that specializes in documentary-style theater, and asked Cosson to interview Dana about her ordeal.

Hnath intended to mold the interview transcripts into a monologue, but instead hit on a more complicated (and complicating) idea. Rather than having an actor speak his mother’s words — which could give a theatrical audience too much distance from their real-life speaker and the inherent contradictions of her testimony — Hnath recut the audio of Cosson’s interviews with Dana into a soundtrack, to which actor Deirdre O’Connell lip-syncs, alone onstage.

The effect is disorienting, but in a way not quite like anything I’ve seen before. O’Connell, a remarkably persuasive actor, matches Dana’s words and gestures so seamlessly you could almost forget she’s not speaking them.

And yet the knowledge that we’re hearing Dana’s real voice undercuts any second-guessing we as an audience might be inclined to do — of actorly choices or of Dana’s fuzzy grasp of timelines.

We know that Hnath has arranged the order of the script; clear beeps in the audio mark the edits. But we also know that we’re hearing Dana’s story from the source. Her sometimes flat affect, or her bleak humor, or her inability to describe a scene in perfect detail decades later — we can hear that those aren’t reasons to doubt her trauma, but are actually products of it.

We also know that Dana survived this horrific episode; she’s here to tell the tale, after all. But the tension in the room as we hear her recount it, and watch O’Connell embody her, is gut-wrenching nonetheless. Having kept this harrowing segment of her life to herself for 20 years, Dana has anticipated the questions: Why didn’t you tell someone? Why didn’t you go to the police? Why can’t you remember everything now?

The slothlike pace of new-play development in the U.S. suggests that “Dana H.” was in the works before the #MeToo movement reached the national conversation. But Hnath’s sensitive rendering of his mother’s story feels like a timely response to expectations that victims should be unimpeachable witnesses to their own anguish. For once, Hnath takes a side — his mother’s — but he leaves her position ever so ambiguous.

Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.