theater review

Dana H. Is Harrowing and Unmissable

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

Some small productions work best in the spaces where they were built. Moving a play from a little theater to a big one is risky — an intimate show’s magic can fail when you try to scale up in size. Not so with Dana H., though, the unlikely crown jewel in this bizarre Broadway season. The breathless, brilliant show has somehow only gotten stronger in its Broadway transfer from the Vineyard Theatre, where its 2020 run was cut short by the pandemic.

Perhaps it’s because the cold splendor of a Broadway house provides such a good visual metaphor. The theatrical arrangement of Dana H. is simple: The actor Deirdre O’Connell sits in a chair facing the audience, lip-syncing to an interview conducted with Dana Higginbotham, the playwright Lucas Hnath’s mother. Dana’s account of a hellish five months in 1998 is full of moments when she tried to get help and people turned away. By setting tiny O’Connell within a low-ceilinged set against the stacked golden balconies of the Lyceum, the production makes clear how dangerous all this massed, unmoving silence is to a person in distress. The audience rises in row upon row upon row, a tsunami glittering with 2,000 eyes.

At the very start, we’re told via supertitle that everything we’re hearing is real. (How much is exactly accurate is another question, one that has no obvious answer, even for the woman speaking.) Hnath — best known for his A Doll’s House, Part 2 — asked his colleague Steve Cosson to interview Dana about something that happened to her more than 20 years ago, when Hnath was off at college. The show’s audio is Hnath’s edited condensation of that two-day conversation; we hear the little beeps of clips starting and stopping.

O’Connell exactly lip-syncs the result: She jangles her bracelets when something clinks, rustles through her purse in muffled moments, laughs uproariously just as Dana does. Precision is only part of her performance, though. O’Connell has long been downtown’s most transparent actor — she’s the sweet-eyed Streep of Off Broadway, if Meryl had a pre-Raphaelite pile of hair and a filthy chuckle. Here, O’Connell goes beyond even what she’s done before. Her Dana is a channeling. You sometimes forget the voice doesn’t belong to the body in front of you, but when you do remember, her performance takes on a still deeper intimacy.

Twenty-three years ago, Dana, a hospice chaplain, was working as a spiritual counselor in a Florida psychiatric ward. A suicidal, meth-addicted, heavily tattooed patient named Jim claimed he was finding his way toward grace. Visions danced in Dana’s head. Could she draw this man, with his lifelong history of incarceration, violence, and white supremacy, to the light?

I kind of thought to myself

well, that that would be a great addition to my ministry

if he did actually come through,

get converted and, and uhh

make his way back to some form of normalcy, uh

that the two of us could have an Evangelistic sort of uh alliance

that it would be very powerful.

After making an attempt to set Jim on his feet, Dana only succeeds in making herself his safety blanket — life outside prison totally overwhelms him — and prisoner. One horrifying night, he comes headfirst through her bathroom window and abducts her, dragging her with him into an evil season of constant travel, brutal assault, and blood-soaked confusion. Whenever she runs, he pursues her. Her parents will not help; there’s nowhere that she can go to escape his seemingly infinite network of white nationalist confederates. After the cops repeatedly fail to save her, she comes to believe the police are either complicit or simply afraid. “I mean, see how my world — everything that was supposed to be right was not,” she says. “Nothing worked. Nothing was the way it was supposed to be.” When I saw Dana H. in February of 2020, this seemed like the paranoia of a battered woman, a symptom of either her isolation or Jim’s own grandiose fantasies. But I realize now I was the naïve one — each day we find out more about how tightly the neo-Nazi right is coiled around our country’s spinal cord.

True-crime podcasts and a billion seasons of Law & Order have not prepared you to hear the way a man can make a woman’s life into a nightmare; this play ushers you inside 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 pink, 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 ability to speak to the dying, to help connect them to the living world even as they’re letting it go. As she talks 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 kind of existential disco freakout, when Paul Toben’s lights and Mikhail Fiksel’s sound seem to go haywire. This stylistic rupture is the only moment in the show I think of as a flaw, though it might exist simply to give us some mental relief. It comes after Dana tells us about a horrific night when Jim rapes her and chokes her into unconsciousness with a lamp cord. (When I saw it, some women left at this point — it’s the rare show that should caution viewers.) Strangulation is often a sign that an abuser is working his way up to killing his victim; its effects also include the mental fog and discombobulated accounts that can make people disbelieve women. Unreality certainly haunts Dana — both her own inability to credit the horrors that have happened to her and the unconvincing nature of her current life, now she’s seen how thin the earth is beneath her feet. Dana clutches a pile of papers, an account she wrote in 2013 after a breakdown, referring to it whenever she needs to get her timeline straight. But even here, she hasn’t really written her story, right? On the title page of the script, she’s not credited as an author.

As a work both of witness and theatrical construction, Dana H. raises a hundred questions about authorship, violence, voice. The moral darkness of converting Dana Higginbotham’s actual speech into entertainment eddies around the production, as does our discomfort (or is it prurient interest?) about eavesdropping on it. The show also seizes you — having seen it before, I can testify that months later, you will still be in its thrall. And look … Broadway isn’t usually like this. How on earth did a show like Dana H. (and its companion in repertory, Is This a Room) wind up a stone’s throw from Bubba Gump Shrimp? It can only happen because we’re in a weird liminal time, when customary investment logic has been turned upside down. Without tourists, without the realistic hope of making huge sums, uptown programming has been given a chance to be strange and wild and pure. Producers have stopped reporting box-office numbers, so we’re left with the intangible measurements to fall back on. I have no idea how many tickets they’re selling, but judging purely 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 Theatre.

Dana H. Is Harrowing and Unmissable