At the Goodman (Owen) Theatre by Dan Zeff
Chicago –“Dana H” at the Goodman Owen Theatre is the chilling account of how a psycho criminal held a woman hostage for five horrifying months. The story is gripping but the manner of its telling is what makes “Dana H” an extraordinary viewing experience.
The play is delivered by an actress sitting alone on a chair in what looks like a modern motel room. The woman narrates her experiences as a hostage, frequently referring to a large manuscript in which she had recorded details of her captivity. The play is based on California theater director Steve Cosson’s interviews of Dana Higginbotham, the real-life hostage, and adapted into its 75-minute dramatic form by the woman’s son, the very hot American playwright Lucas Hnath. Les Waters is the director.
What elevates “Dana H” above a frightening documentary about one woman’s nightmare is the manner of its presentation. The victim is played by actress Deirdre O’Connell, who lip syncs the entire text of the taped and edited interviews. O’Connell’s miming of Dana’s words is so authentic that any patron arriving late for the performance could be forgiven for accepting O’Connell as the on-stage voice of the title character, the actress perfectly melding the text with accompanying slight stammers, chuckles, throat clearing, and facial mannerisms.
O'Connell's lip sync performance may sound like a distracting theatrical stunt, but so accomplished is her impersonation that after a few adjusting minutes the audience will accept the actress as the actual character. And yet viewers may periodically ponder at how the impersonator makes the real Dana so authentically her own creation. It turns reality and artifice on their heads. Even though we know that Dana broke free of her captivity we are in the tight grip of Jim's physical and eventually psychological hold on her and we breathe a sigh of relief as we listen to how Dana finally gained her release.
The story itself is told in roughly chronological order of Dana's life before her kidnapping in 1997, her five terrifying months on the run throughout Florida and North Carolina with the maniacal Jim, her escape, and her life afterward, a life permanently scarred by her ordeal. The telling is presented in an almost matter of fact tone, though Dana at one time briefly breaks down under the weight of her recollections. She sits in her chair, frequently referring to the interview manuscript with Cosson's off stage voice comments as narrative connective tissue. In spite of the matter-of-fact tone and the absence of physical activity, the play sustains its tensions without letup, no manipulating theatrics or melodrama marring the honesty of the telling.
About two-thirds of the way through the performance, there is a sudden stage blackout which converts into a hallucinatory scene that is one of the most unsettling few minutes I have ever experienced in a theater. Then the story resumes its realistic course. We hear about the indifference of local police to Dana's pleas to be rescued from the terrifyingJi m. She lives under constant physical and mental intimidation, fearful of Jim's retaliation of she tries to make a run for it There
apparently is no one in the outside world who notes the woman's disappearance. Where was her son, a university student at the time? Wasn't he at least curious about his mothers unexplained disappearance?
We presume that "Dana Fr is a factual accounting of the kidnapping, though the woman admits to occasional confusion
about the chronology of her captivity. It's possible there is some embellishment of actual events, but in its entirety the story rings brutally true. In any case, the effect is often hypnotic, the audience sitting in engrossed breath-holding silence throughout the evening
"Dana H" had its world premiere earlier this year as a co-production with the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles. It's a remarkable slice of theater but its commercial success will depend on the availability of Deirdre O'Connor. It's unlikely many actresses will take the time and commitment to master the show's lip sync demands so this probably is the only chance local playgoers will have to experience this very special work. It's an experience not to be missed.
Dana H gets a rating ofstars.
'Dana H" runs through October 6 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn Street Most performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 to $45. Call (312) 443-3800 or visit GoodmanTheatre.org/danah.