Dana H. is a true story, we are told, something so terrible and emotionally scarring that the woman at the center hasn’t been able to speak about it for a long long time. It’s hard to describe, the play that is, other than to say that it rolls out as a perplexing recorded memory play, orchestrated by the writer Lucas Hnath (The Doll’s House, Part 2; Hillary and Clinton), to focus a very personal lens on an experience that took place many years ago. It also just happens to be the playwright’s mother’s story, and unlike any other play I have ever seen, he is doubly determined to have his mother’s voice heard, as clearly and authentically as possible. It’s quite a feat of strength and persistence, and the bravery of all involved resonates outward, forcing us to sit up and pay attention to this woman. Played out intricately and succinctly in an armchair with a cheap motel room as a telling backdrop, a harrowing story of violence and abduction unfolds, courtesy of some clever strong work by scenic designer Andrew Boyce (NYTW’s runboyrun, In Old Age), with sharp lighting and supertitle design by Paul Toben (Studio Theatre’s The Wolves). She doesn’t want any light shone on the five month kidnapping. She’d rather keep it to herself, but that trauma and the shattering of Dana H. has played havoc with the ideas of memory, recollection, and personal storytelling for far too long, and to get to salvation, some light needs to come into that hotel room, so life can return to the living.
In 2015, Hnath’s perplexed curiosity made him ask his fellow theatre-making friend, Steve Cosson to interview his mother over a period of several days about this timeframe that she has kept silent about. The conversations were recorded. She talked, and he listened, something akin to a therapy session. Cosson was, at least in these orchestrations, by no means a therapist. His delivery stutters and stalls with an overwhelmed and hesitant quality to his questioning. It must have been overwhelming, for all who were there or for anyone who listened to the tapes, but he was curious and interested, leading her through her traumatic story about a truly devastatingly difficult series of incidents that took place in 1997 while Hnath was away at NYU. But here’s where the nuance and the otherness sets in. An actress, the magnificent Deirdre O’Connell (MTC’s Fulfillment Center) steps in for the damaged Dana H., embodying the woman’s every move and lip-syncing her words with a startling purposeful precision. This is all thanks to the fine work of illusionist and lip sync consultant Steve Cuiffo (Signature’s Old Hats) and costume designer Janice Pytel (Steppenwolf’s Middletown), but it is in O’Connell’s perfect dedication to the real woman where the true power and forcefulness lives and breathes in Dana H., as her depiction resonates as strongly as the story itself.
This is the unique skeleton key, and exactly what we are invited for: the actual tapes of that difficult conversation, edited into a dramatic theatrical piece unlike anything before. Working with Hnath’s wickedly wise sound designer, Mikhail Fiksel (PH’s The Treasurer), the two built an audio track that matched the horrifying story-telling ideal to drive home the complicated idea that good and evil exists most wildly right outside our door. Maybe even that hotel room door that glows in the back just behind her miraculously vanishing and reappearing chair. As directed with the clarity of abstract vision by Les Waters (PH’s For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday), Dana H. is drenched by the hypnotizing examination of power and trauma, and bruised in helplessness and horror,. The play both draws us in with its truth, but also keeps us at arms length, dissociating from the dramatic purpose of being almost too pure and too caught up in the intensity of making the pain monolithic. He’s taken a tight restrictive structure, and added symbolic gestures of cleansing and layering of talk and sound to emphasis time and continued torture. O’Connell is as trapped as she is gifted by the taped recollections of painful trauma, giving her almost no leeway to grab hold of the material herself for dramatic purposes. Echoing testimony from Hnath’s own The Thin Place, the middle ground between life and death metaphorically suggests the horrific place Dana H. found herself after an act of kindness and care in her role at work brought this man into her life. He literally threw himself head first into her home and took control using intimidation and an idea of violence that would make anyone question death as a means of escape. As she talks of her work with those dying in a hospice, she herself needed that same thing to keep herself alive and determined to move away from the light. The ideas presented work for the most part, but I couldn’t get out of my head the more intoxicating Squeamish, another one personal horror story that connected on a stronger more hypnotic level. I thought that maybe if O’Connor had actually been given a voice in the proceedings, that maybe the tale would have engaged my heart as much as the real woman engaged my mind. But Hnath was determined to give his mother a voice at this table, and even as O’Connor stared out the window with anxious fear, the story stayed at arm’s length, scaring us, but never throwing itself through a window to occupy our soul.