Review: DANA H. Recounts a Five Month Nightmare Journey in the Victim's Own Words
The World Premiere of Lucas Hnath's DANA H. at the Kirk Douglas Theatre recounts the real-life story of the playwright's own mother, adapted from interviews with Dana Higginbotham which were conducted by Steve Cosson. Directed by Les Waters, the entire play is told in voiceovers from the real-life interviews, perfectly mimicked and emotionally heartfelt by Deirdre O'Connell in the title role.
As a nondenominational hospice chaplain, Dana had stared death in the face on countless occasions (3-4 per week for 20 years) while assisting many in their peaceful transition to the other side. But when she was called upon to help a mentally ill ex-convict turn his life around after a suicide attempt, she suddenly found her own life hanging in the balance after her then-husband unwittingly allowed the down-on-his-luck ex-convict into their home out a sense of pity for his "no other place to go" story.
Told in Dana's own words without an intermission, on a single, rundown motel room set designed by Andrew Boyce on which O'Connell is seated in a chair center stage, DANA H. recounts the harrowing five-month abduction that followed the fateful night "Jim" gained admittance into her personal life, leading to a nightmare journey during which she was held captive by, forced to travel with, and then eventually able to escape from her unstable kidnapper.
With the ensuing descriptions shared about Jim, especially his brutish size and criminal-mind set, it's no wonder Dana's life was forever changed, leaving her with a terrible case of PTSD. I really have to hand it to her for going back into hospice work after her near-death ordeal on the road hiding out with Jim, and her belief that she was the correct person to channel the transition of others. This innovative work of theatre shatters the boundaries of the form and of our understanding of good and evil.
As her ordeal wore on, moving from motel room to motel room from North Carolina to Orlando, Dana came to realize the cops were never going to help her escape from the clutches of this madman. In fact, she finally realized Jim was an ex-gang member informant for the police so there was never any intention on the part of law enforcement to get him off the streets.
Perhaps one of the most unsettling moment for me occurred when O'Connell "spoke" Dana H's words about how she believes that female victims are always led to believe they are guilty for whatever happens to them, thus getting what they deserved when beaten or even worse. And even though she felt Jim was her spiritual incantation of evil, as a man he seemed entitled to express his anger against the world by focusing his wraith on women in particular, knowing how few would be able to fight back or cause him any harm. Truly many of her statements along the same lines made it difficult for me to not squirm in my seat.
Suffering through many brutal beatings as well as a graphically-described rape, this insider's look at a kidnapping and its repercussions is not for the faint of heart. So, in no circumstances should you bring young children to the show. And even though there have been so many tales in the media about teenage abductions in recent years, I cannot in all honesty recommend this show for anyone under the age of 16. And even then, it's "talking head" style of storytelling, though brilliantly done by O'Connell, may be too intense for those not interested in this type of graphic work.
Lucas Hnath's DANA H. was originally commissioned by The Civilians (New York) and Goodman Theatre, where it will appear during September/October 2019. It world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in a co-production with Goodman Theatre, with performances continue through June 23, 2019. Tickets ranging from $25-$79 are available by calling (213) 628-2772, online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org, at the Center Theatre Group Box Office at the Ahmanson Theatre or at the Kirk Douglas Theatre Box Office two hours prior to performance. The Kirk Douglas Theatre is located at 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City, CA 90232. Free three hour covered parking at City Hall with validation, available in the Kirk Douglas Theatre lobby.
Photo credit: Craig Schwartz