Broadway Review: 'Dana H.' — A Captivating and Harrowing Story of Survival

by Matthew Wexler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday October 21, 2021

Deirde O'Connell in 'Dana H.' on Broadway.
Deirde O'Connell in 'Dana H.' on Broadway.  (Source:Chad Batke )

I led a boycott of one in 2000 when Lincoln Center Theater's production of "Contact" opened on Broadway. Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, the Tony Award-winning musical stirred controversy (at least for me) by using pre-recorded music. How could a musical be a "musical" without a live orchestra? Those wondering if Deirdre O'Connell's gripping performance in "Dana H." is actually a play because she lip-syncs the entire script need to bolt to the Lyceum Theatre, because the answer is an unequivocal yes.

Playwright Lucas Hnath ("Hillary and Clinton," "A Doll's House, Part 2") pieced together "Dana H." from a series of interviews that took place between fellow theater-maker Steve Casson and his mother, Dana, in 2015. He was curious about "a series of incidents" in 1998 while he was away at college. A dreary Florida motel room (designed by Andrew Boyce) provides the backdrop for O'Connell's captivating reenactment of those interviews.

Originally commissioned by The Goodman Theatre and Center Theatre Group and first produced Off-Broadway in early 2020, "Dana H." arrives on Broadway in repertory with "Is This a Room," another transcript-inspired work based on N.S.A. translator-turned-whistleblower Reality Winner. While the latter feels like a well-executed theatrical exercise, "Dana H." strikes at themes both societal and specific.

Deirde O'Connell in 'Dana H.' on Broadway.
Deirde O'Connell in 'Dana H.' on Broadway.  (Source: Chad Batke)

Dana first meets Jim while working as a chaplain in a psychiatric hospital after he has survived a suicide attempt. Upon his release, and with nowhere else to go, Dana and her then-husband invite Jim to spend the night, a kind gesture that backfires into a nearly deadly ordeal.

Shortly after, and now living alone, Jim returns to Dana's home, breaks through a back window, and knocks her unconscious. The following months are a blur of memories: Desolate hotel rooms, hit jobs, and encounters with police who wouldn't — or couldn't, because of the law — provide protection. Quite simply, as Dana says, "Nothing was the way it was supposed to be."

A second viewing of "Dana H." reveals more of the fractured nature of Dana's recounting. Fleeting incidents loosely tied together with a linear narrative follow the events of her captivity, including an attempted escape when she seeks help at a bank as Jim forces her to withdraw money.

"I'm being kidnapped, this guy's in my car he's trying to make me take out money," she screams in the manager's office. And although Jim is taken into custody, eventually, the police tell her, "You know it's just your word against his."

Dana endures trauma for more than five months before a construction worker helps her escape. And although she's no longer under Jim's physical control, the systemic abuse — which began long before Jim entered the picture — continues to permeate her life. She joins a construction crew for the next two-and-a-half years, and eventually lands a job at a hospice center, returning to her work as a chaplain.

Hnath, whose gift for sharp dialogue bristles in his previous works, applies his playwright's eye to curating and editing several days of conversation into a tight 75 minutes, casting a dark haze of normalcy over the very not-normal turn of events.

"You adapt to maladaptation," says Dana of her survival skills amid a lifetime of abuse, of which Jim is only a chapter. We need only look around at the normalizing of vitriolic politics, gun violence, voter suppression, anti-transgender legislation, and the attack on women's reproductive rights as twisted chapters in the life of our collective being.

But out of such darkness, Dana, who helps those who are dying and their families "cross over," creates a transcendent bridge for healing and letting go. She refuses to be defined by her abuser or societal apathy that marginalizes women and other minoritzed communities.

"Dana H."
Lyceum Theatre
149 West 45th Street, NYC
Through January 16, 2022

Matthew Wexler is EDGE's Senior Editor, Features & Branded Content. More of his writing can be found at Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @wexlerwrites.