Realism in the theater is a slippery subject, and the work that’s normally labeled that way is itself a particular kind of artifice and artifact: we sit in a theater in the dark watching a temporary re-creation of a room and we suspend our disbelief enough to have our real emotions engaged by people performing a fictional scene they’ve rehearsed over and over and enacting emotions driven by experiences the actors themselves have (probably) never had. Documentary theater partakes of a different kind of artifice: the words are “real,” originally spoken or written by a nonfictional person in a nonfictional context, but they’ve still been shaped by an artistic hand and for the most part performed by people whose words they are not. (This Is A Room, with which Dana H is running in rep, is the rare exception where a piece of found text is performed in its entirety.) Even a creator like Anna Deveare Smith, who performs the text from interviews she conducted with painstaking literalness, weaving every “um” and stutter into the poetics of her pieces, is bringing us those stories through the medium of her own voice, her own actor’s process.
Dana H, a play adapted from a series of interviews, inverts the logic: There is an actor onstage (the extraordinary Deirdre O’Connell), portraying the character of Dana, but the voice we hear belongs not to her, but to the real Dana Higginbotham, mother of playwright Lucas Hnath. We the audience experience the story through two channels at once: O’Connell’s physical presence in the room we share and a recording of Higginbotham’s storytelling. In 1998, Higginbotham, a psychiatric chaplain in Florida, was abducted by a man named Jim. Jim was a violent ex-felon whom she’d met when he was a psychiatric patient who’d survived a suicide attempt. She tried to help him after he was released from the hospital, and he subsequently broke into her home and kidnapped her. For five months, he dragged her from motel to motel as he returned to criminal activities, terrorizing her and abusing her physically and sexually, until she managed to escape, with her previous life shattered.
Hnath was a college student when this occurred, and in 2015, he asked Steve Cosson, artistic director of the investigative theater company The Civilians (one of the commissioning companies for this piece), to interview his mother about these events. They spoke for several days, and the recordings from those interviews have been distilled into a 75-minute theater piece that’s powerful and unsettling: Powerful both because of O’Connell’s performance and because of Dana’s strength and sheer survival. Unsettling partly, of course, because of the harrowing nature of her story and because of the way that telling it so clearly feels like an exorcism of not just these events but other long-undiscussed traumas for her; she’s reclaiming something for herself in the telling. But there’s also something a little unsettling, to me, in the way that story gets turned into material that belongs to the playwright, both in its thread of reminders about the son’s absence from his mother’s story and in the theatrical devices and frameworks that Hnath and director Les Waters use to shape the play. We’re not just listening to Dana tell this story; we’re immersed in an experience that someone else has built with and on her story. The fraught ethical questions of the craft of documentary feel front and center here, in other words, in juxtaposition to the sheer punch of the story itself.
We hear the audiotape throughout–mostly Dana, but including questions posed by Steve. O’Connell, wearing visible headphones and sometimes referring to a manuscript that Dana wrote about the experience, lip-syncs the words, except in one section where she’s offstage and we hear only overlapping audio. We hear Dana; we see Deirdre taking Dana into her body.
There’s a constant dance between mediated and unmediated versions of this story: The audiotapes are real, but they’re extensively edited and rearranged, with little digital blips marking the cuts. (Hnath has shaped the material to give a visceral sense of not only what happened to Dana in these traumatic months but what her present life contains.) The actress before us is present in the space, but the words pass through her from the recorded audio; she’s a conduit, almost a spirit medium, inhabiting the stories in her body but presenting only the illusion of her voice. (It’s an uncanny illusion, to be sure, after the first minute or so, especially in a Broadway house where one is accustomed to actors being miked anyway, and O’Connell’s physical performance is engrossing and mesmerizing all on its own; she barely moves from an armchair but her stillness always feels poised, precise, chosen. Even so, the split enables a slipping back and forth between modes of watching: listening to a story someone is telling you about their life versus the suspension of disbelief expected of engaging with fictional media.) We watch her hearing the same thing we’re hearing, yetliving it rather than reacting to it.
The location is diegetic to the story, a motel room in Florida (and does at one point meld back into the timeline of the story itself, more on that later), but Dana is telling the story retrospectively, with the distance of nearly twenty years. Andrew Boyce’s set is naturalistic–a generic motel room with all the normal accoutrements and a color palette of lightly saturated pastels to suggest Florida–as is O’Connell’s performance, but we see a stagehand at the top of the show, setting O’Connell up with the audio feed that allows her lips to match the words, underscoring the message (also presented in supertitles) that the text is lip synced. Even the use of “Dana H” rather than her full name feels like a little negotiation between the story and its presentation here: using the initial calls back to AA testimony, to a kind of existing social structure for anonymity and trauma narrative, and of course as a practical matter, it prevents the real person from having her full name out in the public eye, but it also seems to tease the fact that she and her son share an initial but not a last time. There’s the unobtrusive but rarely entirely absent presence of Steve, frequently reminding of the absence of Lucas, a hole in this narrative–another layer we can’t penetrate, a conversation he and Dana can’t have.
There’s a spin on the Brechtian alienation effect happening here. We are tapped in emotionally because we are literally listening to the person who experienced the events, but we see them through multiple distancing prisms: the speaker’s very distance from the story in time; of her responding to prompts rather than just speaking; of the fact that she’s had to maintain emotional distance in order to tell this story; that she refers to and at times reads from her own written notes; and then of course that we’re watching O’Connell and hearing Dana. Les Waters’s directing choices generally tend toward the presentational, which fits for the most part with the style here. Still, a section mid-play breaks with the overall aesthetic, combining a moment of naturalistic in-narrative action with a fragmented, overlapping audio track and a dizzying shift in lighting in a way that felt a little overdirected to me, burying rather than emphasizing what’s going on for Dana at that moment. It’s another piece of punctuation that mediates the reality of Dana’s story, reminds us of the artifice of the experience we’re having at a moment where the story itself is peaking in violence and trauma.
Dana H is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, and it’s amazingly powerful; it’s shining a light on some extremely dark impulses in humanity and also on Dana’s remarkable grace in her ability to come past that experience with her compassion and her impulses to help others intact. But it’s also made me think deeply about the exploitative impulses in storytelling: what are the uses to which her story is being put here, and to whose benefit? The show bears witness to her survival and her ability to build a life with meaning after this shattering trauma. She says, “I can’t be who I am with people, I can’t tell people this…I want to be a part of the world again.” Part of Dana’s job as a hospice chaplain is to help dying people ground themselves in this world so they can free themselves to cross to the next. This act of storytelling, through the gifted intermediary of O’Connell, can, I hope, work as the same sort of release from this period in her life. But the show also highlights that someone else–Hnath and Cosson–requested and prompted this testimony, almost twenty years after the events it describes. I find myself wondering how this story lived, in Dana, in Lucas Hnath, in the other people in Dana’s life, in the years between then and now–and even what story those in Dana’s life were telling themselves about her while she was a captive.