When playwright Lucas Hnath (A Doll’s House, Part Two, The Christians) was in college, his mother, Dana Higginbotham, went through a traumatizing ordeal. Dana struggled to speak about this painful experience with her son, so he eventually had fellow theater creator and collaborator Steve Cosson interview her about it. Hnath then adapted these interviews to create Dana H., a play currently in its world premiere at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre.
At the beginning, we meet Dana (Deirdre O’Connell) as she sits somewhat nervously in a simple motel room, ready to be interviewed. She clutches a manuscript she wrote about her experience, which she occasionally must reference to help her brain fill in the trauma-triggered gaps. In the opening moments, text projected above the stage informs the audience that they are about to hear Hnath’s actual mother’s voice, and the actress on stage will be lip-synching along with the recordings from the interviews with Cosson, who is also heard, but not physically represented. Directed by Les Waters, it is a fascinating staging conceit that feels constantly risky, but O’Connell never misses a beat, perfectly matching every inflection, stammer, and sigh. Hearing Ms. Higginbotham’s actual voice only adds to the impact of the already incredibly powerful material. The emotion does not need to be created, it is already there in this extraordinary first-person recount of a story that will leave you stunned. The story itself lends itself so easily to this medium—particularly in a society so fascinated by true crime—that next to no onstage bells and whistles are needed to help it land.
Dana has spent most of her life as a non-denominational Hospice chaplain, experienced in counseling patients on the brink of death, as well as their families. The fact that she has been so intimately acquainted with death permeates every corner of her story and her unique perspective, and she admits herself that her own baseline for normalcy is skewed due to having an occupation so surrounded by darkness and so many experiences that blurred the line between this reality and whatever may come next. In 1997, she was called to a psych ward to meet a patient named Jim who had tried to take his own life. Although he was an ex-con and white supremacist with a violent past, Dana saw hope for redemption in him. When he was discharged but had nowhere to go, she and her husband even took him in to their own home briefly as she helped him obtain an apartment of his own. But shortly after, Dana’s marriage dissolved, and the religious facility employing her forced her to resign, unwilling to accept her decision to pursue divorce. Due to these two events, Dana was living alone with no daily obligations, creating a sickeningly perfect storm so that when Jim abducted her, no red flags were immediately raised.
For the next five months, Dana was held captive by Jim as he traveled up and down the southern east coast of the United States, from Florida to North Carolina, committing crimes for the Aryan Brotherhood. Constantly physically and mentally abused, Dana never gave up trying to escape, but ran into constant roadblocks due to Jim’s extensive criminal network and the unwillingness of certain members of law enforcement to get involved with such a dangerous situation. Dana’s story is incredibly upsetting and occasionally frustrating to listen to—frustrating simply because of the many instances where she may have been spared more harm had other people intervened when they could have. With the exception of one memorable sequence towards the end of the play, the vast majority of the action is delivered with O’Connell simply sitting in a chair center stage, with stylized audio emphasizing the interview atmosphere and the fact that Hnath has restructured and condensed much of the narrative to create this tight 75-minute piece.
Although this story happened decades ago, now feels like the time to tell it. With new true crime documentaries and podcasts being released and devoured by consumers practically daily, it feels inevitable for such a story to be told for the stage as well. Additionally, in the age of the Time’s Up movement when more and more women are speaking out about their experiences with abuse, Dana’s story, while an extreme example in many ways, shares many themes that will sadly resonate with the experiences of too many others. The choice to have an actress lip-synch created something I did not feel I had seen before, a marriage of truth and art that heightened the piece beyond feeling like a formal interview while maintaining the raw emotion of Dana’s experience. On opening night, Ms. Higginbotham joined O’Connell onstage for a very powerful curtain call, and an important reminder that while it has been adapted for entertainment, this is her truth and her story first and foremost. As an audience member, I felt honored that she chose to work with her son to share it, and I suspect it will not leave my mind for some time.
If you are triggered by vivid descriptions of abuse—physical, sexual, and psychological—I recommend you skip this play. For those who are interested, Dana H. runs at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City through June 23rd. The running time is 75 minutes, no intermission. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased here.