An actor lip syncs not to songs but a taped interview. I’d seen this done only once before. Back in 2005, Lypsinka (John Epperson) performed Off Off Broadway in “The Passion of the Crawford,” taken from taped interviews Joan Crawford did with the legendary publicist John Springer. Perhaps I saw “Passion” too early in the run, but Epperson had problems matching the dead movie star’s voice whenever she started a new paragraph. His mouth kept having to play catch-up to the words.
Deirdre O’Connell is far more proficient at the task of lip syncing to the taped voice of Dana Higginbotham, the mother of playwright Lucas Hnath (“A Doll’s House, Part 2”). There’s not a word, not even a giggle or a sigh, that’s out of place in her astounding performance of Hnath’s new play, “Dana H.,” which opened at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre after runs in Los Angeles, Chicago and Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre.
Crawford lived a dramatic life, but nothing to compare with Dana Higginbotham’s. For five years, beginning in 1997, she lived as a captive to a member of the Aryan Brotherhood whom she had once counseled as a chaplain. They traveled the South, living out of motel rooms, and whenever the police encountered them, the officers invariably took his side despite Dana’s face being bashed in. She managed to escape, but as Dana knew all too well, the Aryan Brotherhood’s tentacles reach into every fabric of law enforcement in the South.
Within the first 30 minutes of this 75-minute drama, you may find yourself asking, as I did, “Well, why didn’t she do this?” Or “Why did she do that?” to escape earlier. Or, “Is she making this up?” The power of Hnath’s play — the playwright adapted the interviews conducted by Steve Cosson — is the dark alternate reality it creates. Soon after her abduction, Dana left the world we know, that she herself knew, to enter another. The old rules of behavior or ways of looking at strangers no longer applied. Dana escaped the Aryan Brotherhood, but has never been able to return to the real world or, at least, the world she knew before her long, horrifying ordeal.
Before her abduction, Dana was a chaplain who helped the mentally ill, ex-cons, and others. She is now a chaplain who counsels the dying. Her grasp of various realities is crucial to this second calling, and her comments bring a bizarre but healing resolution to “Dana H.”
O’Connell could have spoken Dana’s lines. The tapes, however, lend not only authenticity to the play but a disembodied quality that reflects the many realities Dana has inhabited. Director Les Waters sets “Dana H.” in a motel room (scenic design by Andrew Boyce). At first, it seems a logical place for the interviews to take place. Later, the space turns into Dana’s rotating prison. Paul Toben’s lighting and Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design under Waters’ direction contribute mightily to that dramatic transition.
I’d experienced nothing quite like “Dana H.” when I saw it in February 2020 right before Covid-19 shut down the theaters. It is the least likely show ever to make its way uptown where it’s now the best play on Broadway.