For Lucas Hnath’s stranger-than-fiction ode to his mother and her kidnapping, actress Deirdre O’Connell threw herself into the voice and words of ‘Dana H.’
Power, perception and belief are recurring topics of interest for playwright Lucas Hnath. “Hillary and Clinton,” currently on Broadway, views the marital and partisan politics of its namesake leads through a cosmic lens; the Obie- and Outer Critics Circle Award-winning “The Christians” contemplates doctrinal disputes in a megachurch; and the Tony-nominated “A Doll’s House, Part 2” imagines Nora’s life after she fatefully slams that door on Ibsen’s Torvald.
Then there’s “Dana H.,” a drama getting its world premiere this week at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. It’s as intellectual as Hnath’s other plays, yet also more personal.
“Dana H.” was “developed” from interviews conducted with Hnath’s mother, Dana Higginbotham, a hospital chaplain who was kidnapped and held hostage in the 1990s by an ex-convict patient. Those interviews were conducted not by Hnath (pronounced “nayth”) but by sometime collaborator Steve Cosson, presumably to allow for more guileless questioning. “Dana H.” is essentially a one-woman show starring veteran character actress Deirdre O’Connell, with a Samuel Beckett-esque twist: when O’Connell opens her mouth, the voice that emerges is Higginbotham’s.
“It’s good old-fashioned lip-synching,” O’Connell explains, laughing, at the end of a day’s rehearsal in New York, where Hnath has regularly been present. “Lucas took hold of those [interview] hours and honed it into what it is now. It’s me talking, but it’s her voice you hear. That’s the thing that’s been so completely fascinating to try to do. … It’s really incredible because it’s very purifying. You don’t get to do any tricks.”
Produced in association with the Goodman Theatre, the play will head to Chicago for another run after closing in Culver City. “We’re lucky to have two whole runs at it,” O’Connell wisecracks, “because it is quite the beast.”
The role is technically and physically challenging for an actress, particularly one who projects as much warmth as the expressive O’Connell. Working for months with the interview recordings, she’s internalized Higginbotham’s breath, intonation and speaking style. Laughing, she says that includes “speeding ahead of a section that I, as an actor, probably would have wanted to slow down to make sure the audience got the laugh or whatever.
“I’ve been listening to her a lot,” she continues. “I actually don’t know her, but I feel like I know her really well. It would be like singing someone’s music all the time. I don’t even know how to describe the weird empathy beast that you turn into doing it. The closest thing I’ve ever done to this was working with Anna Deavere Smith a long time ago on her play ‘House Arrest.’”
As O’Connell would with any role, she’s asking questions to gain insight into the character. But rather than helping her interpret specific lines, the answers are showing her how to stay true to Higginbotham’s lead.
“It’s a little spiritual reversal to how I usually work,” she acknowledges. “I’m trying to step out of the way as opposed to leading with my head. This has been a real act of surrender.”
Surrender would seem to provide key subtext for the play, whose setup is dramatically rich: psychologically damaged, redemption-hungry ex-con kidnaps chaplain who’s been trying to help him, then drags her from motel to motel across Florida for five months. It’s a weighty shift from uplifting spiritual counselor to defensive victim. Did the ordeal cause Higginbotham to question the value of her work? Did her beliefs sustain her? O’Connell is hesitant to speak for the “fascinating” Higginbotham, who has continued her practice as a hospice chaplain.
“My impression is that this work she does as a chaplain has always transcended her own personal life in a way,” she observes. “She has a gift and she uses it in service of others, no matter how she feels her relationship with God is going on that particular day. … There is never a clear line when the relationship completely changes from one where you have a lot of empathy for the person, to one where you see the other person as the enemy. And that’s part of what the play is about. But again, that’s my impression of the material, not what she would necessarily say.”
O’Connell is more forthcoming about how the “weird meditation” of learning Higginbotham’s voice has helped her perceive unexpected relationships between past events in her own life. And she forthrightly admires Hnath’s timely interest in understanding women.
“It’s an interesting moment in the world right now to be a woman and a feminist, and to note some voices of men who
have been raised, or mentored by, or who grew up honoring women,” she says. “They are deep feminists, and there is a lot to be learned from them. There is a way that a son can regard his mother that has a lot to teach all of us about feminism.”
“Dana H.” begins previews on Sunday, May 26. The play opens Sunday, June 2, with more shows through June 23 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 98200 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Tickets are $25 to $72 via (213) 623-2772 or centertheatregroup.org.