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Review: In the Disturbing ‘Dana H.,’ Whose Voice Is It Anyway?

And your own: While mimicking Higginbotham’s mental dissociation, the uncanniness of the lip-sync destabilizes most other notions of normalcy in the world as well. It suggests an underlife, parallel to the comfortable, familiar one, that threatens at any moment to erupt through the rather thin barrier of routine, just as Higginbotham’s voice seems to erupt through O’Connell’s body in the process of possessing it.

The question of voice is obviously central to Hnath’s concern here, only in part because Higginbotham — it’s no spoiler to say — is his mother. At the time of the abduction, he was a thousand miles away, a freshman at New York University, apparently knowing nothing of what was going on in Florida. She did not want him to know: Jim held her son’s safety over her head, she says, to enforce compliance. “Everything I ever did was all based on what was for Lucas, you know?”

In the silence that follows that line, you can almost hear the eternal maternal follow-up plaint: “But what has he done for me?”

To say he has honored her story, though that’s true, is the skimpiest possible way to look at the achievement of “Dana H.” When the play ran Off Broadway at the Vineyard Theater in 2020, after productions in Los Angeles and Chicago, I was electrified by the way O’Connell turned herself into a kind of musical instrument, letting the recording of Higginbotham “play” her. With her own voice shut off, she emphasized the other tools at her disposal, so that even the smallest shifts of posture and expression became immensely expressive.

Those effects have grown more complex in the Broadway production, shifting its weight in the process. More often now, O’Connell seems to work against the apparent veracity of the text: miming Higginbotham’s odd laughter a little more vividly, underlining moments in which she doubts her memory. Though I never previously questioned any aspect of the story, I now found myself wondering whether a woman so traumatized could be a reliable narrator and whether a play is “true” just because its words are.

Hnath is at pains to signal that it is, in part by exposing his technique at every turn. We see O’Connell put on her earpieces at the beginning of the play and take them off at the end. Beeps indicate spots where the transcript has been edited. (The 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 by Hnath because, as he explained to The Times, he wanted his mother to tell the story “to someone who knew nothing.” That way there would be no shortcuts that might introduce doubt.

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