Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City's Children's Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London's Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.
Pictured: Deirdre O’Connell. Photo by Craig Schwartz.
By Elizabeth Ellis
How well can an actor tell a true story, and also embody the main character of this story? Can anyone other than the actual subject authentically convey the truth and dimension of their experiences? In the powerful and moving DANA H. in the Owen Theatre at the Goodman Theatre, playwright of the moment Lucas Hnath (A Doll’s House Part 2, The Christians) brings the compelling story of his mother’s harrowing kidnapping at the hands of a terrifying psychopath.
In 1998, Dana Higginbotham, the titular Dana H., worked in Florida as a hospice care chaplain with a focus on helping patients make the most gentle and peaceful transitions at the moments that they passed out of this life. Through her work, Dana met up with a suicidal psychiatric ward patient who she refers to as “Jim.” She kindly allowed Jim to stay in her home during Christmas, and helped him secure his own apartment. Later Jim broke into Dana’s home, knocked her out, and kidnapped her. What followed Dana’s abduction and kidnapping was five terrorizing months on the run, stopping briefly in a series of fleabag motels – and enduring horrific abuse and rape. Jim was not only mentally unstable; he was a hardened ex-con and a member of the Aryan Brotherhood since childhood. Even though police stopped him multiple times, with a visibly injured and scared Dana at his side (and his prison tattoos on display), not once did the police detain him nor question him about his and Dana’s circumstances. The police let him go with a laugh. Was Jim operating as an informant for the police, who did not serve nor protect? Did Jim’s association with a violent white supremacist group render the police frightened, and subsuquently impotent? Dana doesn’t fall under Jim’s spell a la Stockholm Syndrome; she is doing everything she can to stay alive. As she calmly recounts her own painful childhood of verbal, emotional, and physical abuse, she comes to the astonishing conclusion that it might have prepared her for this treatment: that if she had been a woman who had not experienced so much trauma (a “Barbie”), she wouldn’t have had the courage nor the ability to survive being held hostage. In one singularly heartbreaking moment, she quietly states, “You adapt to maladaptation.”
One question that keeps arising is: during the months when she held captive, why didn’t more people in Dana’s life recognize that she was missing? Dana’s son Lucas was away at college at New York University, so he wouldn’t necessarily notice whether or not she was engaged in her routine activities. Where were Dana’s friends and coworkers? Did Dana not have that many people in her life who would even casually keep track of her? It’s hard to believe, even in the days before the infiltration of social media made us aware of the most quotidian goings-on of our friends and family, that no one in Dana’s life questioned her whereabouts.
DANA H. employs an unusual technique for a play: the actor performing Dana (the superb and magnetic Deirdre O’Connell) walks onstage, sits in a chair facing the audience, then a member of the tech crew brings out headphones to O’Connell, she places them on her head, and adjusts them. The crew member leaves, some supertitles appear to give the audience a brief background of Dana’s story. O’Connell then listens as an audio tape starts playing, and she lip-syncs to the actual audio tapes of Dana recorded by The Civilians Theater Company. O’Connell also refers periodically to a script she keeps next to her – as Dana explains, she cannot rely completely upon her own memory of the events. This is not unusual for victims of trauma; sometimes in order to survive, they must disengage and see the events as part of a story that is happening to another person. O’Connell remains seated for nearly the entire 75 minutes of the performance, occasionally dipping into her purse on the floor next to her to extract photographs or a water bottle. It’s an odd choice for a play to require an actor to not use one of their most important tools: their actual voice. With this decision, plus the audiotapes providing the text as opposed to a written script, make DANA H. feel like more of a performance art piece, or an episode of a podcast than a traditional play. If you can understand and move past these conceits, you will experience an amazing story, and a riveting performance by O’Connell.
Director Les Waters beautifully gives room for O’Connell to show both the vulnerability and the strength that helped Dana survive and doesn’t shy away from inconsistencies, like Dana’s own admitted lapses in memory. Mikhail Fiksel’s spare and perfectly fitting sound design envelops us in Dana’s voice, and this makes the audience feel like she’s speaking these intimacies to each of us personally. Andrew Boyce’s perfectly nondescript motel room set is one all of us have stayed in at one time or another, whether we wanted to or not.
In a recent profile on him in the New Yorker, Hnath says, regarding the choice to utilize lip-syncing in DANA H., “I realized that there’s no way an actor can do this.” I completely see his point, but I disagree with him here. Reflecting on stellar performances such as Meryl Streep as Sophie Zawistowska in Sophie’s Choice and Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster, it’s absolutely possible that excellent actors can successfully embody and authentically portray real-life characters, even with extreme and unique stories. Despite this difference in opinion, DANA H. is a fascinating theatrical experience, and Deirdre O’Connell is a wonder to behold.