Only a talented playwright like Lucas Hnath could perceive the theatrical potential of recreating his mother’s tragedy by playing back her recorded narrative through an actor’s lip-syncing.
Dana H. (Higginbotham) is the mother of dramatist Lucas Hnath (A Doll’s House, Part 2, Hillary and Clinton). She was kidnapped in Florida in 1997 when Hnath was a New York college student. Dana first met “Jim,” an alt-right, meth-using dangerous felon, who was a patient at the psychiatric ward where she was a counselor. He later kidnapped her and held her prisoner for five months in a series of motel rooms, as law enforcement and others turned a blind eye and let her torment continue.
Twenty years later, theater artist and friend of Hnath’s, Steve Cosson, interviewed Dana about her experience. The disturbing yet mesmerizing Dana H. consists entirely of the edited interview, including the coughs, ums, hesitations, and editing clicks. In a tour-de-force performance, actor Jordan Baker chillingly lip-syncs Dana’s exact words as she enacts and embodies Dana’s facial expressions and movements.
Baker sits in a chair at the front of the stage, with a seedy motel room set behind her. It’s the quintessentially depressing room (Andrew Boyce, scenic design), reminiscent of those where Dana was held, down to the threadbare bedspread (never touch it!) and pathetic attempt at art on the wall.
So, what is it about Dana H. that is so hypnotic it leaves the audience in rapt silence for the entire 75-minute recitation? The re-embodiment of Dana’s voice through lip-syncing is startling and admirable. But it is Dana’s detailed interview of her experience and her candid, conversational description of the horrors she endured that grip us all.
As we watch, we are left to ponder unanswerable questions about our world, where the human psyche can conceive of such cruelty, where kidnap victims can go unaided, and where we may feel an inner frisson at others’ tragedies. And we ask ourselves, did Dana’s abusive childhood play a role in her situation? Did she suffer from the “Stockholm Syndrome”? And if so, did that help to keep her alive?
In this utterly haunting Berkeley Rep production, Les Waters (Wintertime) replicates his first-rate direction of Dana H. on Broadway, which honored him with a Tony Award nomination for Best Direction, one of three such nominations the play received.
Theater reviewers are often asked, “Should I see this?” “Will I like it?” Dana H. is not theater to be lightly enjoyed but rather intensely, sorrowfully, and deeply felt. Dana H.’s significance resonates in one’s soul long after the performance ends. To many, that’s what theater is all about.
Dana H. runs through July 10 at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley. It’s 75 minutes long, with no intermission. Proof of vaccination and mask-wearing are required. Tickets, $25-$115, subject to change, can be purchased online at www.berkeleyrep.org or by phone at 510-647-2949.