Tuesday, February 25, 2020

169 (2019-2020): Review: DANA H. (seen February 21, 2020)

"An Uncommon Woman, An Uncommon Play"

What is Theatre? asks the title of a book by renowned critic Eric Bentley. It’s a question that can never be answered definitively as creative theatremakers continue to find new and surprising answers. This season, for example, the Vineyard Theatre, not especially known for experimental work, has been exploring the nature of theatre by testing the proximity of the staged to the lived experience through the presentation of plays that use the actual words spoken by strong women who faced dire circumstances. 
Deirdre O'Connell. All photos: Carol Rosegg.
First was Is This A Room, a verbatim docu-dramatization of the interrogation undergone by Reality Winner at the hands of the FBI. Interesting as that endeavor was, its impact pales next to that made by Lucas Hnath’s Dana H. In this play, which premiered at Los Angeles’s Center Theatre Group and was then seen at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, an actress lip-syncs the recorded voice of Dana Higginbotham, mother of the fast ascending playwright. Unlike Reality Winner, there’s no reason you should know who she is. Let me tell you, though, she not only has a remarkable story to tell but the method Hnath has chosen to tell it, as well as the astonishing performance of Deirdre O’Connell, make Dana H. the most riveting thing I’ve seen in months.
Who would have thought that an actress, sitting alone in a detailed replica of a tacky Florida motel room (designed by Andrew Boyce), the bed unmade, lip-syncing someone’s actual words recorded in an interview, could be so piercingly effective? But Dana’s story and O’Connell’s uncanny ability to incarnate her without so much as a peep from her own voice makes this one piece of theatre that is absolutely not to be missed.
Hnath—who keeps impressing with provocatively entertaining plays like The Thin Place, Hillary and Clinton, and A Doll’s House Part 2—has created Dana H. by editing hours of interviews with his mother conducted in 2015 by Steve Cosson (artistic director of the investigative theatre company, The Civilians). During the 75-minute presentation, the only others we see are a stagehand, who fulfills a technical task at the start, and a motel maid (uncredited).

The latter appears about three quarters of the way through, after Dana has exited, to make up the bed and clean the room to the accompaniment of sound designer Mikhail Fiksel’s mix of ultrafast audio clips and an accelerating musical score. Meanwhile, Paul Toben’s lights pop on and off in rapid, phantasmagoric sequences, a device intensifying our desire for Dana to return and provide the resolution to her dangling story.

At the beginning, Dana introduces herself as a hospital chaplain counseling people with dying loved ones, and the dying as well, easing their passage to the other side, a practice she provides across religious lines. The essence of her tale, however, concerns what happened in 1997, when Lucas was in college, after she began counseling a sociopathic, white supremacist, recently released from prison.  His name was Jim and he was a walking keg of TNT, trained in criminal behavior from childhood. Despite his therapeutic reliance on Dana, he kidnapped and beat her, used her as an accomplice, and even raped her.
Dana’s plight, exacerbated by the failure of most police to help her (it’s her word against his), is expressed in emotionally restrained yet electrically charged terms. She is obviously a woman of awesome inner strength (she believes her having been beaten by her own parents helped her cope with Jim’s violence), forcing us to consider what we might have done under similar circumstances. Even the story of the aftermath to her traumatic experience displays a character of incredible resilience. She’s the embodiment of what it takes to be someone who helps people suffering from what her program bio describes as “the effects of trauma, loss, and life threatening or life limiting issues.” It’s best to not to reveal any further details of Dana’s mesmerizing narrative, so spellbinding will they be when first you hear them.

O’Connell, one of New York’s finest and most regularly seen actresses (The Way West, Scarcity), was trained to lip-sync by Steve Cuiffo. So effective was his tutelage, aided by the on-point direction of Les Waters, that it’s impossible to detect where the recording leaves off and the lip-syncing begins.
Not only is her timing perfect—the verbal stumbles, the coughs, the hesitations, and the like—but her behavior so convincingly conveys the possible facial expressions, gestures, physical tics, and movements of Hnath’s mother, it’s impossible to believe she isn’t speaking the words with her own voice. O’Connell is talented enough to have spoken the lines themselves but there’s no denying that hearing Dana's memories emanating from the controlled but quietly expressive voice of the woman who endured them is what makes Dana H. the must-see and must-hear play of the moment.

Vineyard Theatre
108 E. 15th St., NYC
Through March 29 (Extended through April 11)