Broadway, Dana H., Deirdre O'connell, Lucas Hnath, Theater

Broadway, Dana H.

‘Dana H.’ Broadway Review: Finding Words For The Unthinkable

‘Dana H.’ Broadway Review: Finding Words For The Unthinkable

10/18/2021 3:01:00 AM

Dana H.Broadway Review: Finding Words For The Unthinkable

Whether or not you know, or think you know, the real-life story of Dana Higginbotham, about her five-month abduction and torture, about her famous playwright son transforming the horror into art an…

Dana H.‘Dana H.’Chad BatkaDirected by Les Waters with both a documentary attention to detail and an artfulness that can seem dreamlike,Dana H.plays out on a perfectly recreated Florida motel room, designed by Andrew Boyce as a sort of cloister in pinks and pale greens that instantly says “Florida,” and more gradually, “prison.” O’Connell, seated and facing the audience, mouths Higgenbotham’s words and, rather miraculously, conveys through facial expressions and nervous gestures the rush and swirl of emotions that belie her tamped-down, shell-shocked verbal delivery.

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Here’s how Dana evenly describes an early encounter with the outside world while under Jim’s control:“One of the very first things that ever happened was going to a pawn shop, and he wanted a shotgun. He’s got his hand on my neck the whole time, almost everywhere we were his hand was always on my neck like that. And he says straight ahead to the guy, ‘I can’t buy it…I’m a felon but uh she’s going to buy it.’ And the guy said ‘oh ok.'”

And so begins a pattern that would repeat itself over the next five months, a cycle of abuse and control that seems to form a literal barrier between abuser, victim and the outside world, and that makes stories like Dana’s so difficult to fully understand. Dana knows full well, from her days in captivity to the years after escape, the questions that will haunt her: Why didn’t you just run away? Why didn’t you scream for help every time you encountered a store clerk, or were taken to an emergency room, or pulled over by the police?

Consider it the towering achievement ofDana H.that by the end of this play, all but the thickest of listeners will no longer feel compelled to ask those questions. For starters, Dana/Higgenbotham spells out the real-world implications of Jim’s status in the White Supremacy organization that has a deep reach into the nation’s prison system and beyond – a status that she is convinced, and argues convincingly, led to one cop after another taking a hands-off approach when confronted with a bruised and bloody woman.

But Dana’s words, and O’Connell’s performance that is by turns steely and vulnerable, goes to a deeper level of why and how. Her mesmerizing account of a five-month waking nightmare pulls us so deeply into the psyche of abuse that we fully comprehend the utter surrender, the no-way-outness.

When escape comes, it seems the most unbelievable part of the play – that’s no criticism – a dizzying now-or-never moment conveyed through a heretofore absent theatrical flash, as a motel maid goes about the tedious business of tidying the just-vacated room, sheets bloody, lights suddenly flickering and the many recordings of Dana’s voice overlapping into a ear-splitting cacophony, a depiction that wouldn’t be out of place in a

Twin Peaksepisode. (Credit here to the extraordinary sound design of Mikhail Fiksel and Paul Toben’s lighting work).That moment of surreality and confusion not only speaks to the mental state of the lead character, but demands we ask some tough questions about narrator reliability and the fluidity of perspective. Does the motel maid – portrayed by the only actor besides O’Connell to take the stage – not notice the red splatter on those white sheets? Is she simply inured to what must be, in her world, a commonplace sight? Like so many of the people who cross paths with Dana and her tormenter, the maid

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