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SCRUTINY | Crow’s Theatre’s Dana H: Remarkable, Harrowing & Not To Be Missed

By Paula Citron on March 27, 2024

Crow’s Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Centre Theatre Group & Vineyard Theatre’s production of Lucas Hnath’s Dana H (Photo: John Lauener)
Crow’s Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Centre Theatre Group & Vineyard Theatre’s production of Lucas Hnath’s Dana H (Photo: John Lauener)

Crow’s Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Centre Theatre Group & Vineyard Theatre/Dana H, written by Lucas Hnath, directed by Les Waters, Factory Theatre, closes Apr. 7. Tickets here.

Dana H is a remarkable play, and despite its harrowing nature, is not to be missed.

This is a production that began in Chicago. The play caused a sensation both off and on-Broadway in 2020-2021, and Les Waters, who directed the original production, has also helmed this iteration. The work has been reimagined by the original creative team, and rebuilt from the ground up specifically for Toronto and the Factory Theatre.

Lucas Hnath is a well-known American playwright, and theatre cognoscenti might remember his opus, A Doll’s House, Part 2 (2017), having a successful run here in town a few years back. His Dana H, however, is a play unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

Dana H happens to be Hnath’s mother, Dana Higginbotham. In 1997, she had, apparently, just lost her job as a chaplain in a psychiatric unit at a Florida hospital, when she was kidnapped and traumatized by a drug-addicted, ex-convict, Aryan brother, and former patient called Jim.

For the next five months she experienced a horrifying captivity, being dragged from motel to motel, as the psychopathic Jim did various jobs for his white supremacist crime syndicate friends. When she did manage to escape, the terrified Higginbotham spent two and a half years hiding from Jim, working with a construction gang. Hnath’s play is about these shocking events.

Hnath’s friend Steve Cosson is a director, writer, and artistic director of The Civilians, a company known for docudrama and verbatim theatre. In 2015, Hnath asked Cosson to interview his mother about the experience, as she was then ready to talk about it. He asked Cosson to do the interviews, rather than himself, as he felt a neutral person was better. Cosson recorded those interviews, which Hnath then fashioned into a play.

This one woman show has a distinct difference, however. American actress Jordan Baker lip-syncs to Higginbotham’s voice, as unbelievable as that sounds. Thus we hear the actual voice of the person who experienced these horrors, as well as Cosson’s questions. Once the play begins, it is a non-stop recording, which means Baker has to time her responses to fall perfectly within Cosson’s voice. That Baker manages to pull this off is one of the greatest feats of acting I have ever witnessed.

At the time, Hnath himself was a student in New York and knew nothing of what was happening to his mother. In fact, Jim kept threatening Higginbotham with violence towards her son, which was one way he kept her in his thrall.

Andrew Boyce’s set is a non-descript motel room. Baker sits in a chair at the end of the bed, holding what looks like a manuscript in her hands. At the beginning of the play, we see her being fitted up with earphones, so the fact that she is lip-syncing is never hidden.

Only once does Baker leave the room, and that is when the hotel maid (Stephanie Dilnot), comes in to clean and change the sheets. When she lifts the sheets, we see blood, the only physical sign of Jim’s brutality that we witness in the play. In fact, Higginbotham tells us that there was never a time that she wasn’t covered in bruises.

Waters’ direction is filled with micro details. Every shift Baker makes in her chair is calculated. At some points, when she is describing some particularly gruesome aspect of her captivity, we see her whole body tense with remembered fear. Naturalism reigns supreme which is a triumph both for Baker and Waters. We are also aware of the tape itself, as we hear static and the pings where some editing must have happened.

We should mention Janice Pytel’s costume for Baker, a baggy red cardigan over a black top and pants, which looks so perfect – comfortable wear for a very uncomfortable conversation. Paul Toben’s lighting makes the room look suitably dingy and claustrophobic, while Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design, including some very edgy composed music, is a masterstroke.

Could an actor have recited the interview transcript? Of course. That’s what actors are trained to do, but the pure genius of hearing Higginbotham’s own voice is absolutely unnerving.

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Paula Citron
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