Review: Dana H. at Goodman Theatre Is an Intense, Emotional Experience

Walking into Dana H., all I knew was that the lead actor, Deirdre O’Connell, was lip-syncing. Little did I know I was going to see one of the most intense, emotional productions I have ever seen. Playwright Lucas Hnath, director Les Waters, and actor O’Connell have accomplished a truly enormous feat. Dana H., Hnath’s story about his own mother, might just be the finest production I’ve ever seen, and if you enjoy documentaries and dramas, you have to see Dana H.

Dana H. tells the story of Dana Higginbotham, played by O’Connell, as she describes her career as a hospice chaplain, while being interviewed by a friend of her son. She tells about meeting with Jim, a mentally ill ex-convict, who turns Dana’s world upside down. Kidnapping her and holding her hostage for five months, Jim forces her to accompany him across the country, exposing her to racists, criminals and murderers. It’s an intense experience, and Higginbotham’s words descibe everything in such detail that it can feel like you can see Jim build that homemade bomb, or feel the knife on the back of your neck.

Deidre O’Connell. Photo by Craig Schwartz

The dramatic feature of Dana H. is that O’Connell doesn’t actually speak a single word through the entire play. Instead, she lip syncs to the old interview with a friend of her son, where she recounts the story of her kidnapping. O’Connell does an absolutely fantastic job lip-syncing, and after 15 minutes I just began to hear the recorded voice as O’Connell’s voice; that’s how convincing her performance was. It was hypnotic, like watching someone throw their voice, but of course there was no one else on stage, just O’Connell sitting in a chair, talking candidly in another woman’s voice to an invisible interviewer whose only evidence of existence was his disembodied voice. Huge praise goes to Steve Cuiffo, the Illusion and Lip Sync Consultant.

Dana H. is a unique beast in the world of theater. It feels like a documentary, with the recorded voice of Dana Higginbotham echoing through the theater reminding me of a Ken Burns production. At the same time, with the way O’Connell is seated in the middle of the room, speaking to an interviewer the audience cannot see, it was like I was looking through a one-way mirror, taking an uninvited peek into a searingly personal interview. It gives the entire production an incredibly intimate atmosphere, as you listen into Higginbotham’s harrowing tale of kidnap, near-death, and attempting to put back together a life that had been totally destroyed. This feeling is made even more intense because you’re hearing this story not just though Higginbotham’s exact words, but her own (recorded) voice. I don’t think this production would have been anywhere near as moving if they had decided to just have O’Connell speak a script of Higginbotham’s interview.

This is a one-of-a-kind production, and I can think of nothing else that truly compares to it, at least in the realm of theater. It’s like getting a front-row seat to a private interview that you shouldn’t be watching, listening in as Higginbotham recounts one of the most terrifying stories I’ve ever heard. It had me on the edge of my seat, not daring to take my eyes off O’Connell. Usually I like to say “if you enjoy *blank*, then you’ll enjoy this play” but forget that. Whatever type of theater you prefer, even if you don’t have a particular fondness for the theater, go see Dana H. This is a unique experience that shouldn’t be missed.

Dana H. appears through Octobor 6 in the Goodman’s Owen Theater. Running time is 75 minutes with no intermission. Tickets cost $15-45, and they’re on sale at Recommended for ages 16+ for dark themes and vivid descriptions of violence.

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James Brod

James Brod recently graduated from Dominican University, with a degree in political science. Ironically, he had previously considered majoring in journalism, but didn’t want to write for a living. Funny how things turn out, isn’t it? You can find him wandering the northwest suburbs, or on Twitter at @JamesBrod12.