I saw *Dana H* at the Vineyard Theatre on 3/11/20. It's a new play by Lucas Hnath, whose work I had so loved in *A Doll's House Part 2* and *Hilary and Clinton.* The story behind the show is as fascinating as the show itself. Hnath wrote this note for the program:
"In 2015, I asked fellow theatre-maker Steve Cosson to interview my mother about a series of incidents that took place in 1997 while I was away at college. For several days, Steve and my mother talked. Everything was recorded on tape. The play you're about to watch has been cut together from those taped interviews, and the actress playing my mother will lip-sync to Dana's actual voice."
Spoiler alert! Dana was working as a chaplain in a psych ward and was kind to an inmate, an ex-con who was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood. He was released and ended up breaking into her house (he threw himself head-first through her bathroom window) and holding her prisoner for the next five months, driving all around the lower part of the Eastern Seaboard. She eventually escaped and spent the following two and a half years working on a construction crew, in an effort to stay off the grid and away from her captor.
The play was constructed so the actress playing Dana, Deidre O'Connell, was sitting in a chair facing the audience. We never heard her voice, we only heard the recorded voice of the actual Dana. I thought this was a strange choice, why not have the actress really perform the role and speak with her own voice? But having the play be about the playwright's mother gave it an extra level of drama and connection, and hearing her voice telling the story was harrowing. We also often heard the voice of the interviewer, Steve Cosson. At one point he asked her if she had spoken with her son during her captivity, and she said she had spoken with him a little bit. The interviewer asked if she had talked with him about it since, and she said (I'm paraphrasing), "Not really. I haven't talked with anyone about it, until now, when I'm talking to you."
So the interviews were part of Dana's process of healing and coming to terms with what had happened to her - - and writing the play was her son's way of processing what happened to his mother. Seeing the play was a profoundly complex, engrossing, and disturbing experience. I left the theater asking myself, Why do I go to the theatre? I want to see something unusual, I want to be moved by good writing and good acting, I want to be pulled out of my everyday existence. This play did all of that.
The three plays by Hnath that I've seen have made an interesting progression from fiction to non-fiction: *A Doll's House Part 2* took the characters of *A Doll's House* and imagined what they might do 15 years after the play ends. It's fiction, but based on such well-known characters, it feels like it approaches mythology.
*Hilary and Clinton* took Hilary Clinton and Bill Clinton (and Barack Obama, at the end of the play) and imagined what they might have been saying to each other in January of 2008, when Hilary Clinton was running against Obama for the nomination. It's fiction, in the sense that the people didn't actually say those things, but it's firmly rooted in that precise historical moment, and the main characters are people that we all (think we) know so well.
And *Dana H* is non-fiction presented in a heightened theatrical setting. Hnath could have made the interviews into a film, where you hear his mother's voice and see re-enactments or abstract images to accompany the audio. Or it would be a fascinating "book on tape." Or he could have done it as a straight-up one-woman show, with an actor fully inhabiting the character and speaking her words. The hybrid format he chose to use was such a fascinating choice.
Here's a behind-the-scenes video about the play. FYI I saw the illusion and lip-sync expert, Steve Cuiffo, in *The Passion of the Crawford* years ago.