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Theatre in Review: Dana H. (Vineyard Theatre)

Deirdre O'Connell. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

The current Vineyard season could be labeled "Ladies in Distress, in Plain Sight." In Is This a Room, the company's previous production, the writer-director, Tina Satter, turned the transcript of an FBI interview with the leaker of government documents Reality Winner -- in her front yard, in daylight -- into an uncommonly tense thriller. The experience of watching a gang of powerful men disingenuously manipulate the frightened, vulnerable Winner -- rather like cats batting about a ball of yarn -- was enough to cause sweaty palms and high indignation.

If anything, Dana H. is even more remarkable, both for its unsettling narrative and its bizarre provenance: In 1997, when the playwright Lucas Hnath was a freshman at NYU, his mother, Dana Higginbotham -- then working as a chaplain in the psychiatric ward of a hospital in Orlando -- was kidnapped by Jim, a recently discharged patient and member of the Aryan Brotherhood. For the next five months, she lived in a waking nightmare as Jim took her up and down the Eastern Seaboard (between North Carolina and Florida), often at knife- or gunpoint. She was beaten so badly that some scars remain today. She was raped at least once.

Dana H. is based on an interview that Higginbotham gave to the director Steve Cosson, of the troupe The Civilians, at Hnath's request. (The idea of her telling this story directly to her son is unimaginable.) The script is an edited version of the tape, which is lip-synced by Deirdre O'Connell, who stars as Dana. It's a stranger-than-fiction horror story, told in a singular fashion seemingly calculated to preserve a certain distance between the audience and such violent, melodramatic events; in practice, the effect is spellbinding.

Dana's story is so confounding because, as a trauma survivor, she is often vague on certain details as well as the order of events, and she sometimes comes across as feeling ashamed of, or somehow complicit in, what happened. She establishes a relationship with Jim during his psych-ward stay; when he is released just before Christmas, Dana's husband offers to take him in for the holidays. (The marriage is in the process of dissolving, and the husband will be gone by the time trouble starts.) In the new year, Dana gets Jim set up with a job and an efficiency apartment, but her good deeds will be rewarded with abduction and a kind of slavery.

Because this is a first-person account, what sticks in one's mind is a multitude of details, each of them a chilling revelation of Dana's personal hell. She says she and her husband took Jim in because the local church-owned halfway houses considered psych meds to be "the work of Satan." Jim breaks into Dana's house by smashing his head through a bathroom window. A beating at his hands leaves her face "totally broken." Stopped by a cop, she is told that her situation boils down to "your word against his." Realizing that the police will not help and terrified that Jim is highly enough placed in the Aryan Brotherhood to keep tabs on her at all times, she is further cowed by his threats against her parents and son. (She strongly suspects that lawmen go easy on Jim because he is an informant against his Aryan brothers.) For this reason, a version of the Stockholm Syndrome sets in -- or, as Dana puts it, one learns to "adapt to maladaptation."

Despite its matter-of-fact style, the story that Dana tells is so appalling that at times I found myself fighting it, thinking it couldn't possibly be true. But consider a recent New Yorker story about Brittany Smith, an Alabama woman who killed the man who had beaten and raped her and was in the process of brutally assaulting her brother. For saving her sibling, she was charged with murder and, when a psychologist termed her "hostile" and "ill at ease," she ended up in a mental hospital. (An attempt at defending herself, invoking the state's stand-your-ground law, failed; as the story notes, it almost always does when the defendant is a woman. Such is life for many in the American South.) Most of us like to think that there's a certain minimum level beneath which it is impossible for one to slide but Dana H. refutes this proposition, definitively and frighteningly.

That Hnath has been able to make a brutally effective piece from such intimate material is a testament to his skill and his mother's courage. The lip-sync device, which might sound off-putting, works brilliantly here, in part because Dana's voice is so persuasive and filled with understated emotion, in part because O'Connell, one of the greatest actresses currently on the New York stage, handles the vocal track so seamlessly, adding extra levels of nuance to everything Dana says. Consider the cagey look she offers when asked if she witnessed any of Jim's crimes; it and the tempered answer that follows tells you everything about the psychological wounds she still bears.

Indeed, Les Waters' direction of O'Connell, who remains seated throughout most of the evening, never strikes a false note. Special mention goes to sound designer Mikhail Fiksel and illusion and lip-sync consultant Steve Cuiffo for helping to pull off the play's central effect. Also eerily powerful are Andrew Boyce's stark, cheerless motel-room set, with its preponderance of pink cinder block and mint-green sidewalls, and Paul Toben's lighting, especially in a tableau featuring Dana, staring out the window, illuminated like a film-noir character. Janice Pytel dresses O'Connell in a thoroughly appropriate manner.

Dana's escape from Jim -- which depends entirely on chance and the kindness of strangers -- sends her into another life, which I won't describe here. By the end, she is working as a chaplain again, this time in a hospice, where she helps to guide patients through their final hours. At this point, Dana H. strangely echoes The Thin Place, another unsettling Hnath drama, in which a woman, also sitting in a chair, summons gooseflesh without raising her voice. The Thin Place suggests that the membrane between this world and the next is diaphanously thin; Dana H. argues that it is frighteningly easy to fall through society's cracks, ending up hostage to a madman. Dana notes that, having lived through it all, she can't really take part in normal social discourse, which now seems too trivial for serious consideration. After hearing her story, you may feel the same way. -- David Barbour

(25 February 2020)

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