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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
DANA H.
at Vineyard Theatre

HEARING IS BELIEVING?
By BRIAN SCOTT LIPTON

  Deirdre O’Connell/ Ph: Carol Rosegg

Is seeing believing? Is hearing believing? These questions challenge us every day, both in life (Is that guy talking in the street on a cellphone or just to the thin air?) as well as in the theater – most especially in Lucas Hnath’s last Off-Broadway outing, the ultra-mysterious The Thin Place (seen earlier this season at Playwrights Horizons). Now, in his fascinating solo play Dana H., making its New York premiere at the Vineyard Theatre under Les Waters’ keen direction, Hnath is once more challenging our belief in “truth” on multiple levels.

Ostensibly, the work consists primarily of the award-winning actress Deirdre O’Connell sitting in a bright blue chair (on Andrey Boyce’s realistic looking if color-clashing motel set) and lip-syncing recordings made by Hnath’s mother, Dana Higginbotham, as she discussed for the first time her terrible kidnapping ordeal in 1997. (The interviews were conducted by Hnath’s friend Steve Cosson, the artistic director of the acclaimed theater troupe The Civilians, whose questions are heard over the sound system.)

But just because Hnath insists that this is the play’s set-up, is it true? If so (and Dana’s voice sounds remarkably like O’Connell’s to me), O’Connell’s work deserves some sort of special award, as she flawlessly manages to not only precisely repeat Higginbotham’s words but replicate every inflection, every pause, every “um and uh” that “Dana” utters, all while constantly gesturing, looking down at a manuscript, and essentially physically becoming this still-troubled woman.

In stops and starts, Dana recalls how her work as a hospice chaplain led to meeting Jim, a psychotic hospital patient – and member of the Aryan brotherhood – whom she and her then-husband befriend, and who eventually kidnaps her and makes her an accomplice to his many crimes over a five-month period before a so-called friend of his enabled her escape.

Is that what really happened, though? Was Jim, a brutal and violent man (who even supposedly rapes Dana, but only once) as much a protector as predator? Are we sure, as Dana insists, that his main goal was to make sure other angrier members of the Aryan Brotherhood didn’t kill her – or Lucas, who is off at college (and who from what we can tell never hears from his mother during this time)? Was every policeman they supposedly encountered truly helpless to arrest Jim for more than a couple of days? Did so many strangers never really notice her distress? Or did a lonely, recently divorced woman simply latch on to the wrong man?

Over the show’s 75-minute running time, these questions become not just dizzying but amplified as Dana readily admits she’s not the most reliable narrator; she’s often confused about time periods and can't recall why she has certain items (including Swastika-decorated silverware) still in her pocketbook. But, as Hnath subtly acknowledges – and remarkably without judgment – even if half of what she tells us happened as she claimed, wouldn’t our brains scramble such memories or make excuses for our own complicit behavior in this kind of situation?

Moreover, by letting us know in the sections that begin and end the piece that Dana is a true empath – her profession is essentially being kind to those who are dying so they can “cross the bridge” in peace – another question arises: Was she simply willing to give Jim the so-called benefit of the doubt? Or given that she first met him after a suicide attempt, did she somehow think it was her duty to be with him once he (perhaps inevitably) either tried to kill himself again or was killed by one of his so-called enemies?

These are all pertinent questions, but this is the real one Hnath wants us to consider: Can we ever really know another person – never mind really know ourselves? Above all, that lingers in the mind long after Dana H. ends.

 


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