NEW YORK — A mesmerizing act of electronic ventriloquism is going on at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre these days — but the conveyance is no puppet in the lap of a nightclub performer. The meticulous channeler is actress Deirdre O'Connell, lip-syncing the voice of a middle-aged Florida woman taken hostage for five months in 1997 and brutalized by a mentally ill ex-inmate.
“Dana H.” is the dramatic container for O’Connell’s solo performance, a play by Lucas Hnath (“A Doll’s House, Part 2”), collated from conversations recorded by Hnath’s theater colleague Steve Cosson with Dana Higginbotham, the victim in this bizarre saga. And here’s the kicker: Dana, a hospice chaplain in Orlando at the time, is Hnath’s mother.
It’s hard to say which is more absorbing: Dana’s story or O’Connell’s uncanny portrayal, requiring her to reproduce in perfect alignment with the audiotape every cough, pause, giggle and slap of the chair in which she sits for much of the 75 minutes of the piece. None of this occurs, by the way, in the Sarah Cooper vein of political parody. As directed with a solemn intensity by Les Waters, “Dana H.” — which had its official opening Sunday — ultimately succeeds as an ideal, entirely serious, synthesis of interviewee and actor. The details of Dana’s story are as disturbingly memorable as O’Connell’s embodiment is of Dana.
“Dana H.” is half of what may be Broadway’s most daring high-wire act of the season: a pair of performance pieces, each a little more than an hour long, based on the recordings of women caught up in extraordinarily stressful encounters. Running on a rotating schedule at the Lyceum with “Dana H.” is the recently opened “Is This a Room,” a reenactment of the arrest of Reality Winner, a National Security Agency contractor who went to prison for leaking classified documents to an online news outlet.
Both enjoyed successful runs at off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre, a more modest and, in that sense, conventional venue for these kinds of art house projects. With nonmusical productions experiencing an especially difficult time attracting audiences, one dearly hopes theater lovers across the region flock to these pieces — and prove Broadway can provide a safe house for offbeat drama.
“Is This a Room” is a dramatization that allows the actors to speak from FBI transcripts in their own voices. In “Dana H.,” the verbatim intrusion goes even deeper. Dana explains in the edited-down interviews with Cosson — a theater director himself, whose voice you also hear on the tape — that this sit-down is the first time she has ever confided in detail the torment she underwent.
Her account, recorded several years ago, is a harrowing blow-by-blow of events leading up to and during her captivity by a volatile man identified only as Jim, whom she naively took into her home when he had nowhere to live. O’Connell remains stoically faithful to the real-life character, leaving it to us to ponder the mystery in Dana’s on-and-off passivity after Jim becomes violent, forces her into a car and eventually drives with her across the southeastern United States.
“Dana H.” compels you to relinquish any impulse to snap judgment. Cosson coaxes out acknowledgments that there might have been opportunities to escape; she even took one, she reports, only to have the police she fled to say that the circumstances were all her word against his. The audience, too, is required to take Dana at her word; implicit in “Dana H.” is the notion that society believe victims when they tell their stories.
More crucially, though, the drawing-out of Dana gives audience members the chance to reflect on what they might know about trauma, and what threats of violence do to distort someone’s natural reactions.
But no clinical psychology degree is necessary to be captivated by “Dana H.” O’Connell’s performance — redolent of an actor’s sense of the stage and her character’s suppressed anxieties — is a model of seasoning and control. On Andrew Boyce’s satisfyingly familiar-looking set of a bland motel room, the sort of dreary interior you find in a Sam Shepard play, Waters and Hnath indulge in a few unexpected pyrotechnics. A stunning interruption occurs, involving designer Paul Toben’s lighting and the ministrations of a housekeeper not identified in the program. It’s a scene that affirms both the real horror and surreality of what Dana was subjected to.
The curious offstage character is the playwright, who was in college in New York at the time of his mother’s ordeal. Knowing he constructed this wholly original work, living day after day with the story in his ears and on his computer, you wonder about the impact on him. That’s one of the admirable payoffs of “Dana H.”: It helps you grasp how profoundly a crime against a mother can be visited on a son.
Dana H., by Lucas Hnath, adapted from interviews with Dana Higginbotham by Steve Cosson. Directed by Les Waters. Sound and audio editing, Mikhail Fiksel; costumes, Janice Pytel. About 75 minutes. $39-$212. Through Jan. 17 at Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., New York. 212-239-6200. telecharge.com.