A woman held captive saga gets a fresh spin in playwright Lucas Hnath’s engrossing memory piece Dana H. Its major theatrical device is actress Deirdre O’Connell’s entrancing performance as she lip-synchs to a recording of Mr. Hnath’s unseen mother recounting her real-life ordeal.
In 1997, Florida psych ward chaplain Dana Higginbotham was abducted by a patient she had grown close to. He was an ex-convict with a long record, an Aryan Brotherhood member, a possible police informant and brutally tried to commit suicide twice. For five months, Ms. Higginbotham was assaulted physically, mentally and sexually as the two moved across the country, staying in motels. After several failed attempts, she was able to get away and go on to rebuild her life.
“Fresh ears” is how theater writer and director Steve Cosson describes himself in the work. As it was thought that Ms. Higginbotham would be more forthcoming and descriptive by being interviewed by someone other than Hnath, Mr. Cosson conducted hours of recorded interviews with Higginbotham. We sometimes hear Cosson’s mellow questioning and much of the time, Higginbotham’s emotionally expressive and occasionally lighthearted voice. That the tale is actually told by its subject while acted out by someone else endows the show with unique realism.
Hnath’s dramatic adaptation is a 75 minute selection of the footage, arranged into a spellbinding narrative. Sound designer Mikhail Fiksel’s superlative contributions focus on blending the edited recordings together with artistic polish and adding integral sounds.
Wearing costume designer Janice Pytel’s arresting black and red ensemble, Ms. O’Connell mostly sits in a chair on scenic designer Andrew Boyce’s authentically detailed drab and ominous motel room set. With her haunting eyes, flowing hair and magnetic countenance, O’Connell vividly channels Higginbotham’s presence. Her lip-synching, gestures and facial expressions are all flawless. The presentation’s conceit is realized by O’Connell’s supreme artistry.
Director Les Waters adds numerous small and one large theatrical flourish, preventing the production from becoming totally static. Paul Toben’s lighting design achieves an appropriate otherworldly quality with its gradations of murkiness.
Dana H.’s theatrical elements are all majestically in unison, making it a soaring and searing experience.
Dana H. (extended through March 12, 2020)
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-353-0303 or visit http://www.vineyardtheatre.org
Running time: 75 minutes without an intermission