And yours: while mimicking Higginbotham’s mental dissociation, the weirdness of lip sync also unsettles most other notions of normalcy in the world. It suggests an underground life, parallel to the comfortable and familiar life, which threatens at any moment to erupt through the rather thin barrier of routine, much as Higginbotham’s voice seems to erupt through O’Connell’s body in owning it.
The voice issue is obviously at the heart of Hnath’s preoccupations here, in part only because Higginbotham – not a spoiler to say – is his mother. At the time of the kidnapping, he was thousands of miles away, a freshman at New York University, apparently not knowing anything about what was going on in Florida. She didn’t want him to know it: Jim held her son’s safety over his head, she said, to enforce the law. “Everything I did was based on what was for Lucas, you know?” “
In the silence that follows this line, we can almost hear the eternal maternal complaint: “But what has he done for me?”
To say he honored his story, even if it’s true, is the skinniest way possible to look at the making of “Dana H.” When the play was performed Off Broadway at the Vineyard Theater in 2020, after productions in Los Angeles and Chicago, I was electrified by how O’Connell transformed into something of a musical instrument, leaving the ‘Higginbotham recording the “play”. With her own cut voice, she focused on the other tools at her disposal, so that even the smallest changes in posture and expression become immensely expressive.
These effects became more complex in the Broadway production, shifting its weight in the process. More often now, O’Connell seems to go against the apparent veracity of the text: mimicking Higginbotham’s odd laugh a little more vividly, pointing out times when she doubts her memory. While I never questioned any aspect of the story, I have now wondered if such a traumatized woman could be a reliable narrator, and if a play is “true” just because its words are.
Hnath strives to point this out, in part by exposing his technique at every turn. We see O’Connell putting on his headphones at the start of the play and removing them at the end. The beeps indicate where the transcript has changed. (Sound design and skin-crawly music are by Mikhail Fiksel.) The interview was conducted by Steve Cosson, the artistic director of the Civilians, rather than Hnath because, as he explained to The Times, he wanted that his mother tells the story “to someone who knew nothing”. This way, there would be no shortcuts that could introduce doubt.