Is seeing believing? Is hearing believing? These questions challenge us in real life every day, just as they do by Lucas Hnath’s fascinating solo play “Dana H.,” now at Broadway’s Lyceum Theater, with the award-winning actress Deirdre O’Connell offering an utterly astounding performance under Les Waters’ keen direction.
To the naked eye, it seems as if O’Connell -- sitting onstage in Andrew Boyce’s standard motel room set – is relating the story of how Hnath’s mother, Dana Higginbotham, survived a terrible kidnapping ordeal in 1997. Sure, we repeatedly hear the voice of an interviewer (Hnath’s friend, the actor Steve Cosson) and the frequent sounds of a tape recording stopping and starting. But can O’Connell really be lip-syncing?
Indeed, she is -- flawlessly managing to not only precisely repeat Higginbotham’s words but perfectly replicating every inflection, every pause, every “um and uh” that Dana utters. All the while, O’Connell is also constantly gesturing, fidgeting with her eyeglasses, looking down at a manuscript, and, in every way possible, essentially inhabiting each fiber of this still-troubled woman.
Luckily, the piece is more than just a tour-de-force acting exercise; it’s a gripping and often confounding tale. As the 75-minute show begins, Dana recalls how her work as a hospice chaplain in Florida led to meeting Jim, a psychotic, suicidal and ultimately dangerous hospital patient whom she and her then-husband befriend. Soon after, Jim kidnaps her, repeatedly, and makes her an accomplice to his many crimes over a five-month period, before she is almost magically freed by a stranger.
But is all of what we’re told what really happened? Was Jim, as he claims, really acting not as a predator, but as Dana’s protector from his violent associates? Was every policeman the pair supposedly encountered truly helpless to arrest Jim for more than a couple of days? Did so many strangers never really notice her distress? Or did a lonely, recently divorced woman simply latch on to the wrong man? And, just as important, why did her son (the playwright, remember) seemingly never try to find his mother? After a while, all of these questions (and more) can become positively dizzying!
Moreover, Dana readily admits she’s not the most reliable narrator; she’s often confused about time periods, for example. And by letting us know in the sections that begin and end the piece that Dana is a true empath – her profession is essentially being kind to those who are dying so they can “cross the bridge” in peace, Hnath may even be positing that Dana was somehow trying to save Jim from himself (or perhaps eternal damnation).
Finally, as the play subtly acknowledges, even if only some of what Dana tells us happened exactly as she claimed, wouldn’t it be logical for one’s brain to make excuses for one’s own complicit behavior in this kind of situation? That thought, and O’Connell’s incredible work, will both linger in the mind long after “Dana H.” ends.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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