When Lucas Hnath was in college, his mother was kidnapped and held hostage for five months by a member of the Aryan Brotherhood. Dana Higginbotham was a psychiatric hospital chaplain when she and her then husband showed a patient some kindness, offering him food and a couch to sleep on when he had nowhere else to go. Then things took a turn for the worse and the man attacked Higginbotham and took her on an extended road trip, shuttling her between his various criminal activities, the full nature of which are unclear to her to this day.
The period Higginbotham spent in captivity is the subject of her son’s new play, Dana H.. Though Hnath is credited as the author, the play blurs the lines between what is written and what is restated fact. Hnath’s play is constructed from verbatim audio recordings of Higginbotham recounting her story and the solo actress (the extraordinary Deirdre O’Connell) performs silently to these recordings. It raises questions of authorial voice – why is the play “by” Hnath when Higginbotham is the one crafting the words? Hnath has said that the only way to convey his mother’s story was to have her actual voice be heard, but is it not an erasure of her storytelling, of the word choice and sentence structure she employs, to then list himself as the author?
Higginbotham, both on the recording and as embodied by O’Connell, holds a manuscript she has written about the very events she’s describing. She even reads directly from it at times. The presence of Higginbotham’s book hangs over the play. Will this be published or is the play “scooping” its own source material? Higginbotham offers both the written and the spoken word versions of her story in front of us, yet Hnath’s is the one we’re there to see.
Shaping verbatim interviews into a play is nothing new. Probably the best known example is The Laramie Project, credited to Moisés Kaufman and The Tectonic Theater Project, but The Civilians also do this all the time and their Artistic Director, Steve Cosson, conducted the interviews with Higginbotham that Hnath used as the raw material for Dana H.. Those other works do not use the actual audio of the interviews, though. They are scripted and performed by actors and they take multiple voices and refashion them into a play text. Hnath acknowledged in an e-mail to critics that whatever kind of script he has created from the audio transcripts of these interviews is “not particularly legible.” The script, as it were, of this play is the recording cut and assembled by Hnath with sound designer Mikhail Fiksel that still uses Higginbotham’s literal, single voice.
Hnath’s own presence in the story is minor but, since he is the play’s author, his absence is loud. The play doesn’t explore if he was wholly unaware of his mother’s five month kidnapping plus the two and a half years she spent on the run with a construction crew after she escaped. At one point, Higginbotham says she had a little contact with him, but the play does not interrogate what he knew or if he tried to help or if she was ever worried that her captor would try to do something to her son. The story is not about Hnath, but it’s also not not about him. Since he places himself in front of her narrative by assuming authorship of Dana H., to hear his mother relive the horrific things that happened to her is to also wonder how it affected him or what affect he had on this period of her life.
None of this is to diminish the impeccable work of the production, though. If this is the way Dana Higginbotham’s story has to be told, it is given physical life by a team of exceptional artists, beginning with O’Connell. Though she doesn’t speak, there are moments when it feels like Higginbotham’s voice is actually coming through O’Connell’s mouth. It’s like a séance, like she is channelling someone else through her body. She brings a level of exquisite detail to each word, each shape her mouth takes, each movement of her eyes and limbs. It’s theatrical in its own magical way. The set by Andrew Boyce brings a faded pastel wash to a hotel room that is everywhere and nowhere, a limbo that lives both within the five months of Higginbotham’s captivity and the twenty plus years that have elapsed since then.
Director Les Waters is Lucas Hnath’s best collaborator. Their individual works (The Christians and The Thin Place, now Dana H.) all exist in the same world of their own devising. The plays have been touched by different designers and theatres and political/cultural climates, but what Waters is able to zero in on in Hnath’s writing is a chilling mystery, an unknowable thing in the heart of it that has not been illuminated in Hnath’s Broadway work with other directors (A Doll’s House, Part 2 and Hillary and Clinton).
The Christians, while not explicitly a thriller like the two later works, wrapped the idea of hell or the absence of hell and the destruction of belief around the text like a vice that slowly choked out the characters. The Thin Place gave us darkness and description and let our eyes manifest things in the void. Dana H. feels positioned, at first, in the wave of this national true crime obsession we’re in, but Waters makes it about more than hearing horrible things happen to a woman. It’s never pornographic or exploitative because the production steers it away from that. What emerges is a portrait of a woman who survived something terrible. I just wish she got the credit for it.