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THEATER Dana H.
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2019-09-21

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Playwright: Lucas Hnath

At: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. Tickets: 312-443-3800; GoodmanTheatre.org; $15-$45. Runs through: Oct. 20

Your mother is a non-denominational chaplain who counsels hospice patients and occasional psych ward inmates, among the latter a murderer and Aryan Brotherhood hero who attempted suicide in prison. When Cowboy Jim is released, your mother hosts him for Christmas and helps him secure an apartment.

Now imagine this: after another suicide attempt, Cowboy Jim kidnaps, brutalizes and rapes your mother while keeping her captive for five months. He returns to criminal violence, claiming enemies are pursuing them from cheap motel to motel, and he's protecting your Mom. You are away at college and know nothing of this until much later.

Lucas Hnath, now 40 years old and an exceptional playwright, didn't have to imagine. It really happened to his mother, Dana Higgenbotham, in 1997 beginning in Orlando, Florida.

Many of Hnath's plays are deep explorations of contemporary American culture and Dana H. is one of them. It's a truly terrifying account of a Fascist criminal underbelly within The Land of the Free and the indifference—if not actual complicity—of police who refused to serve or protect Dana despite repeated appeals to them. Eventually Dana believed that Cowboy Jim was a police informant, which is why cops exchanged smiles and pats on the back with him and left him alone.

It's also possible the cops were terrified of him. Dana saw how he was lionized by bikers, bar owners, some motel managers, etc. throughout Florida and the Carolinas in a widespread violent, vengeful network.

But Dana H. isn't about the police or our justice system. It's about the journey of Dana herself, who managed to survive double horrors. First, she endured a Born Again upbringing in which her parents literally beat the Devil out of her from age three, yet she emerged with an independent faith she used as a counsellor. Second, she survived Cowboy Jim with that faith somehow intact.

Dana H. employs an unusual technique. It's a one-woman show with expressive Deirdre O'Connell as Dana, but she never speaks a word. Instead, O'Connell lip syncs to Dana's actual voice, narrating her story to an interviewer. Lucas Hnath then edited hours of tape into an 80-minute unified dramatic tale. Hnath never comments on or judges his mother's account, not even why she didn't return home for two-and-a-half years after escaping Cowboy Jim.

Is it really a play if there's no playwright's voice or perspective? Isn't it just a staged form of narrative non-fiction? These are legit questions, and yet the powerful story and unusual technique mesmerize. O'Connell is detailed and natural as can be, directed by Les Waters. Above all, Dana H. cautions us about a vicious, gun-fueled subculture which lives—even thrives—among us.


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