A Woman Is Kidnapped by a Member of the Aryan Brotherhood in Dana H.
Lucas Hnath's true-crime docudrama opens off-Broadway.
In Matthew 25, Christ invites the righteous to inherit the kingdom of heaven, explaining, "For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in." It's a beautiful message about the importance of caring for "the least of these my brothers," and it's one that chaplain Dana Higginbotham clearly took to heart when she opened her home on Christmas 1996 to Jim, a tattoo-covered ex-convict with a history of psychological problems and drug abuse.
What happened next is the subject of Lucas Hnath's heart-pounding Dana H., now making its New York debut at the Vineyard Theatre. The script is pieced together from an interview between Dana (who is the playwright's mother) and Steve Cosson (artistic director of the documentary theater company the Civilians). Actor Deirdre O'Connell lip-synchs to audio from that interview, allowing us to hear the story in Dana's own voice. In 75 gripping minutes, she discusses her abduction by and eventual escape from Jim, a troubled man who was definitely part of a brotherhood — although it certainly wasn't in Christ.
Jim was a longtime member of the Aryan Brotherhood, an organized crime syndicate with a strong presence in the prison system. While white supremacy is a bedrock principle, its motivations are more about money, meth, and murder. Jim took Dana across the American South on his criminal errands, using her identity to buy guns that would normally be denied to a felon like himself. Multiple times, Dana attempted to escape, only to be told by the police that they could only hold Jim for a limited amount of time, and that it was her word against his.
Witnessing a series of backslapping conversations between Jim and the cops, she began to suspect that Jim may have been an informant, or that the police were willing to sacrifice one citizen to preserve a detente with America's most violent prison gang. Even worse, Jim seemed to know people everywhere they went, adding to Dana's paranoia that there was nowhere to run.
That paranoia wafts through the theater in Les Waters's slow-boil production, which instills terror in the most modest ways. (Waters and Hnath also did this recently in The Thin Place, but the subject matter of Dana H. makes it so much more real.) O'Connell sits in a chair at the center of Andrew Boyce's motel room set, which gives us a visual sense of the numerous indistinguishable motel rooms Dana stayed in with Jim on his travels. Paul Toben's lighting snaps us to attention and then subtly transforms throughout the show (a segment featuring headlights moving behind the upstage drapes is particularly eerie). And then there is the eeriest element of all...
I had expected the lip-synching to give the play a surreal quality, with a voice coming out of a body to which it does not belong. And at first, this is the case, but O'Connell mouths the words so precisely, and her mannerisms are so natural, that it becomes easy to forget that we aren't actually hearing the actor's real voice. Dana's matter-of-fact delivery also meshes particularly well with O'Connell's unsentimental performance. Just as Jim exercised physical and psychological control over Dana, O'Connell is completely in thrall to the recording, memorizing every cadence and cough. Yet it is remarkable to witness the level of freedom she is able to find within those strict parameters, creating a performance that is entirely hers.
Sound designer Mikhail Fiksel reminds us of the recorded nature of the show with a "boop" sound to indicate each cut in the audio, which always seems to return with a different level of quality. It's the auditory equivalent of cutting to a new angle, sometimes one that is not fully in focus.
And while Dana H. is a fascinating look at an American underworld most theatergoers will never see firsthand (I hope), our view of Jim and the Aryan Brotherhood remains somewhat blurry by the end, like a half-remembered nightmare. It seems as though Dana herself is still piecing together everything she saw during her captivity, and what it meant. Even talking about it two decades later feels risky, like welcoming a stranger into one's home. That makes Dana H. one of the scariest shows of the season and a perfect companion piece to the Vineyard's earlier triumph, Is This a Room.