“I’m in this world but I’m not,” the middle-aged woman confesses to an unseen interviewer in Lucas Hnath’s “Dana H.,” a mesmerizing solo show of theatrical shamanism that is receiving its Broadway bow.
The voice is that of Dana Higginbotham, assured yet apprehensive, matter-of-fact but, at times, also on a razor’s edge. It is also a voice lost in a haze of realities, roles and identities that will have audiences transfixed throughout the show’s 75 minutes.
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After 17 years, Higginbotham is finally revealing her harrowing and traumatic underworld experience — by proxy. In an astonishing feat of actor-as-avatar, the recorded voice of Higginbotham is being lip-synched on stage by the extraordinary Deirdre O’Connell.
Giving the work yet another layer of the complexity, if not surreality, is the fact that Higginbotham is the mother of the playwright Hnath. In 1997, while Hnath was in college at NYU, Higginbotham was held hostage for five months. She was kidnapped by a former convict and member of a white supremacist brotherhood whom she counseled and mentored as a chaplain when he was in a psychiatric unit of a Florida hospital. The bond she had hoped to make on his road to redemption instead turned into a non-stop highway to hell.
Her mind-boggling story is one episode of shock after another: of a hospital’s irresponsibility, of police complicity, of a secret parallel world of guns, bombs, drugs and extreme violence, of a victim’s numbness as she is stripped in body and soul. (“You adapt to maladaption,” she says chillingly.)
The show will have audiences leaning forward to hear each and every revelation — and, following this Broadway run, it seems likely to find welcoming homes in many cutting-edge venues around the country.
Hnath has expertly crafted a piece of theater that is both raw and authentic yet at the same time one of artifice, and it is in this in-between plane that the audience lives. There is no hiding the fact that this is a lip-synced piece based on the recordings of many days of interviews by dramaturg Steve Cosson. At the show’s start, O’Connell is clearly outfitted on stage with an ear-piece and given a quick sound check. There are electronic beeps throughout, as a reminder that this is an edited, recorded work. Supertitles add information and separate the three acts of the narration.
Of special note is Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design, which is as impeccable as it is essential, including ambient discords that add to the atmosphere of unease. So does Andrew Boyce’s set: a generic, down-low motel room (cooly lit by Paul Toben) that represents all the stops Higginbotham and her abductor inhabit during their months on the lam.
O’Connell performance is a minimalist tour de force. Under the specificity of the audio limits, her interpretations are micro-nuanced as her bond with the audience becomes even more intimate.
There are some questions raised in the loose storytelling that are left unresolved, either in Higginbotham’s lapses or in the editing. Throwaway references to her past and her family are not followed and simply dangle. But this is not a docudrama with everything neatly laid out and analyzed; it’s a memory play that wants its audience to step outside the narration and go beyond the voice as to see the larger story.
The final third of the play is titled “The Bridge,” and it’s a section that follows Higginbotham’s life after the kidnapping, where actress-as-conjurer becomes a medium with a message.
Higginbotham talks of her post-abduction years of being a lost soul before becoming hospice chaplain and finding purpose again. Like the mythic ferryman, she talks about guiding dying patients from one reality to the next, letting them let go, and the grace that comes with that. With “Dana H,” she too finds release, crosses over, and perhaps finds her voice again.
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