Stage Door Review 2024

Dana H.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

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by Lucas Hnath, directed by Les Waters

Goodman Theatre, Center Theatre Group & Vineyard Theatre, Factory Theatre Mainspace, Toronto

Runs March 15-April 14, 2024

Dana: “I’m in this world but I’m not”

The 2019 play Dana H. by American playwright Lucas Hnath is an experimental work that uses new means to explore one the most ancient tropes in literature – the relations between illusion and reality. The play is disturbing both in the story it tells and in the means it uses to tell this story. By the end you are lost in admiration for “Dana H.” herself, who is none other than Hnath’s mother, Dana Higginbotham, and for the actor Jordan Baker, who undergoes severe constraints in order to portray her.

When you enter the Factory Theatre Mainspace , where Crow’s Theatre is presenting this touring production, you immediately see Andrew Boyce’s amazingly realistic set of a room in a grungy motel – one of the most detailed sets ever seen on the Factory Theatre stage. The fluorescent light cast on the set by lighting designer Paul Toben only makes the room look sicklier. The prime jarring detail is that one of the chairs is facing toward the audience.

After Jordan Baker enters through the motel room door, that is where she sits and where a stage manager fits her with wireless earpieces. In surtitles we learn that in 2015 Steve Cosson interviewed Dana about events she experienced in 1997. The dialogue in the play made up entirely of excerpts of these interviews edited together. The surtitles also tell us that Baker will be lipsynching to Dana Higginbotham’s voice on the recordings and played through the theatre’s sound system as she answers questions posed by the unseen Steve Cosson. This situation remains in place throughout the play’s entire 75-minute running time. Electronic beeps sound to mark edits in the tape.

Before we have time to decide what to make of this usual situation, we become involved in Dana’s story. In the first section, surtitled “A Patient Named Jim”, we learn that Dana was a nondenominational chaplain at a hospital in Florida. She was especially adept at helping dying patients of all faiths “cross over” by calming their concerns. One day she was called to help a psychiatric patient named Jim who had tried to commit suicide. He was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, a neo-Nazi prison gang responsible for murdering Black prisoners that later grew to become involved in organized crime outside prison walls.

Jim has been brought up my members of the Aryan Brotherhood from the age of three, and Dana hoped that she could win him away from a mind so imbued with hatred and paranoia. Dana’s care had the unwelcome effect of causing Jim to depend on her. While Lucas is away at NYU and after Dana is divorced and lives alone in her house, Jim breaks in, knocks her unconscious and kidnaps her.

This leads to a section entitled “The Next Five Months”. During this period when she is Jim’s hostage, they move from one motel room to another in Florida and the Deep South both to remain safe and so that Jim can do “jobs” the Aryan Brotherhood assigns him. The events of these five months are so confused in Dana’s mind that she needs to read from a narrative she wrote to get their chronology straight for the interviewer.

We wonder how she could be held captive by one man for so long. Although she suffers physical and sexual abuse, Dana never succumbs to Stockholm Syndrome, i.e., she never identifies with her captor. Instead, she frequently signals to people that she is in danger, but no one is willing to help – especially not the police. They often encounter the police as they move from place to place, but each of these encounters ends with the police chatting with Jim and patting him on the back. That plus the fact that that Jim says people are out to kill him suggests to Dana that Jim may be a police informant which makes the police so incurious as to her situation.

Dana’s story gives us a glimpse of how broken America is. When Jim wants to buy a gun, he takes Dana with him into the store. He can’t buy a gun because he is a felon. Dana, however, can, so Jim forces Dana to buy a gun that the store owner obviously knows is meant for Jim.

Finally, someone does help Dana escape and we move into the third and final section entitled “The Bridge” that deals with Dana’s life after her captivity. Surprisingly, Dana is able to get a job as a construction worker. This has the benefit of keeping her on the move where Jim would never think of looking and helps her develop a sense of pride in proving she is as strong as the men she works with. After two and a half years of this, Dana is able to get a job as a counsellor in a hospice. There she is again helping dying patients to let go of life. This might seem to be a return to normal, but after five months with Jim, she has PTSD and nothing is normal any more. She says, “I’m in this world but I’m not, and I want to be in the world again.”

Clearly, Hnath’s mother has a compelling and disturbing story to tell. The main question is why has Hnath told the story this way? There are many possible answers. The most obvious answer is that Hnath wants to reflect his mother’s condition after her ordeal – “I’m in this world but I’m not”. By having us hear Dana’s actual voice and having us watch an actor lipsynch her words, Dana is both there and not there. Hnath would not achieve this effect by using the simpler approach of having an actor speak his mother’s words in the actor’s own voice.

Next Hnath’s idea functions as a Brechtian alienation effect – a technique of distancing the audience from the action so that they reaction to what they see intellectually rather than emotionally. Director Les Waters begins the process of alienation by showing us the actor receiving earpieces right in front of us. This could have been done before the actor made her entrance, but the point is not to conceal the mechanism that will make the play possible. The stage manager’s presence on stage immediately undermines the set’s hyper-realism.

The alienation effect is not merely a means of making us constantly aware of the play’s own artifice, but also a reflection of Dana’s view of herself. Dana says that like many victims of long-term trauma, she began to look on what happened to as if it were happening to another person. This is a psychological coping mechanism known as dissociation. When people cannot find safety, they create a sense of safety by dissociating themselves from the external world and from memory.

The clearest example of this in the play is Dana’s reliance on the narrative she wrote to help her remember the distressing incidents she experienced. One of the most chilling parts of the play is when Dana readies herself to tell the interviewer her “favourite part” of her time with Jim. This is when he raped her. To tell this part, Dana does not speak from memory but reads from the manuscript she is holding in a monotone, unemotional voice. As Dana distances herself from this disturbing event, Hnath and Waters distance us from the reader.

What is curious about Hnath’s editing of his mother’s interviews is that he leaves certain jarring sentences in that demand but do not receive fuller explanation. Dana says in passing that she toyed with Satanism, but why did that happen and what made her give it up? Dana says that her mother said Dana was “pure evil”, but why would her mother say such a thing? Dana says that she suffered constant physical abuse as a child, but how did this affect her and did she ever recover from it? Knowing that what she will say will be controversial, Dana tells the interviewer that in some ways she was lucky to have suffered childhood abuse because it better prepared her for surviving her kidnapping.

Given such statements, we have to wonder how much about Dana and her background Hnath edited out of the play. Even if he did not edit out such material, we wonder by the end, strangely enough, whether we really even know the real Dana despite having listened to her voice for 75 minutes. It is through meditation on this aspect of the play that what might seem a mere stunt becomes a profound investigation about how much anyone can really know about another person. As Aldous Huxley wrote in 1954, “We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves…. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude”.

The most disquieting aspect of Hnath’s approach is that to celebrate his mother’s voice on stage he has to take away the actor’s voice. This is rather like Jim’s holding Dana hostage, never allowing her to speak and always speaking for her. Hnath’s play requires an actor’s enslavement to a taped voice. This is highly paradoxical since one of the things Dana most values in her hospice work is helping dying patients express their fears. As she says, “I give them a voice”.

With such extraordinary constraints place of her acting, it is marvellous that Jordan Baker is able to do to make Dana her own character. Baker’s lipsynching is close to perfect but not perfect, and that is how it should be. We have to be aware that Baker’s speaking words is an illusion. Yet, given that the tapes include aspects of ordinary speech such as “um” and “uh”, false starts to sentences and unfinished sentences, Baker’s timing is immaculate and these “errors” on speech seem completely natural. Shifting in her chair, changing posture, clasping her manuscript, rifling throough her purse all add to her building Dana as a character. The controlled way she animates her face becomes our principal means of analysing how Dana feels about the often disturbing things she is saying. Baker is especially good in showing two sides to Dana’s unexpected laughter. Sometimes Dana finds telling some of her story so incongruous that she must laugh. But sometimes Baker’s face suggests that Dana is really laughing at a horrible irony about her ordeal that only she knows fully about.

Hnath provides the actor an interval before Part 3 when she does not sit in the chair. This may be to give the actor a rest. Unfortunately, the way Hnath and Waters fill this interval is by trying to make the set appear unreal via Paul Toben’s lighting. The effect is rather like watching an episode of a supernatural series like Stranger Things rather than a show about the mind and how it protects itself. Theatre-lovers should see Dana H. both to marvel at how well Baker copes with this most unusual role and to contemplate the questions the show raises about the representation of reality on stage.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Jordan Baker as Dana H. © 2024 John Lauener.

For tickets visit: www.crowstheatre.com.