BWW Review: DANA H. at Goodman Theatre
Lucas Hnath's DANA H., now in its world premiere at The Goodman Theatre, recounts a harrowing trauma experienced by the playwright's mother, Dana Higginbotham. In 1997, she was working as a hospice chaplain in Florida when a former patient, a mentally ill ex-convict, kidnapped her for five months. Hnath tells this deeply personal story through a riveting device: actress Deirdre O'Connell lip-syncs to recordings of interviews with the real Dana, conducted by Steve Cosson nearly two decades after the recalled events. Under the direction of Les Waters, this uniquely intimate encounter between audience and narrator offers a terrifying glimpse into the mental and emotional realities of being a survivor of abuse.
For most of the play, O'Connell sits center stage in a shabby motel room designed by Andrew Boyce and dimly lit by Paul Toben. Despite the simplistic blocking--with the exception of one jarring sequence, not to be spoiled here--the tense, one-woman narrative keeps audiences on the edge of their seats for 75 minutes straight. O'Connell channels not only Dana's words but also every audible detail, such as sighs and gestures. Her remarkable performance has the effect of making it seem Dana is actually in the room, telling her story.
And what a story she has to tell. Dana recalls her first encounters with Jim, her kidnapper, whom she initially counsels in the psych ward of the hospital where she works. Recently out of prison, Jim is mentally ill and struggling to disentangle himself from the Aryan Brotherhood, which has held him in its iron grip since childhood. Upon his release from the hospital, Dana and her then-husband try to help Jim get a job and an apartment, only to find him severely unfit to function as an independent adult after years behind bars. Over time, he becomes dangerously attached to Dana, culminating in his breaking into her home and violently abducting her. Over the course of five months, she is forced to accompany him on the road for drug deals, hit jobs, and other criminal activities--in addition to suffering extreme physical and sexual abuse.
Dana describes her memories of this period as "snapshots" in her mind, unconnected by any reliable sense of time or sequence. The play mimics this effect by splicing together nonlinear interview clips, which, together, portray a highly disturbing pattern of abuse. Throughout the ordeal, Dana's internal sense of helplessness is exacerbated by the failure of authority figures to rescue her. She compares herself to a dog that has been beaten so much that it stops fighting back. Whenever she is able to speak with police officers and ask for help--which happens multiple times--all but one refuse to act against Jim, fearing repercussions from the Aryan Brotherhood. The result is a horrifying cycle as Dana loses her hold on reality and develops an unhealthy sense of dependence on her abductor.
When she finally escapes, her journey back from the darkness is equally distressing. It takes several years for her to find a steady job and a home, after which she struggles with dissociation, isolation, and victim blaming. Ultimately, the play strikes a note of hope by lingering on Dana's empathetic approach to hospice care, describing how she coaches patients to consciously release their pain and fear so they can peacefully accept death. Inversely, she pursues peace in life, releasing her trauma by sharing her story in writing, interviews, and now, on stage. As she says late in the play, "I want to be a part of the world again." In her son's hands, Dana's reflections become a striking portrait of resilience, and her words linger long after the lights go down.
Photo by Craig Schwartz
Review by Emily McClanathan