As Albert Blossom sings in DOCTOR DOLITTLE, “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”
You haven’t, either.
And you’ll have to see Deirdre O’Connell perform it in order to believe that it can be done.
O’Connell is currently at the (always-rewarding) Vineyard Theatre portraying the real-life title character of DANA H.
Stating that the “H” stands for Higginbotham won’t make clear who she is, for Dana H. isn’t famous.
However, her son is in theatrical circles. He’s Lucas Hnath, a two-time Obie-winning playwright (RED SPEEDO; THE CHRISTIANS) and author of HILLARY AND CLINTON, seen on Broadway last season.
DANA H. offers his mother’s harrowing story which is all the sadder because Ms. Higginbotham started out with the best intentions. She was a psych-ward chaplain assigned to Jim, an ex-con who was raised in the Aryan Brotherhood. Nevertheless, Higginbotham saw some good in the man who seemed as if he wanted to improve his life.
Her giving him the benefit of the doubt did not yield benefits. The more Higginbotham helped him, the more Jim became drawn to her to the point where he kidnapped her.
THIS, you say, is what you’ve never seen in your life? Imdb.com has an entire category called “Kidnapping/Hostage Movies” that lists 217 titles dating from THE COLLECTOR in 1965 to GONE in 2012.
Never, though, have we seen a one-person show about a kidnapping in which the performer doesn’t speak a single word.
During the 75-minute performance, O’Connell says nothing.
Instead, she lip-syncs to an audiotape.
Hnath heard the recordings and was obviously both repulsed and fascinated by what his mother had endured. But this playwright knows drama when he hears it, so he decided to put Dana H.’s story on stage. So O’Connell mouths words that Higginbotham related to Steve Cosson, who interviewed and tape-recorded her after her rescue.
You might ask “Why bother with lip-syncing? Why not just have O’Connell say what was on the tapes?” Perhaps Hnath wanted to replicate his mother as much (and as vividly) as possible; if her body couldn’t be on stage, her voice could.
And unlike such one-person biographical plays as Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain, Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson and Henry Fonda as Clarence Darrow, here we know for certain that the voice we’re hearing Dana H.’s own.
No disrespect to Holbrook, Harris and Fonda, but if they ever went up on a word or line – or needed and extra beat to swallow or clear their throats – they could, for they were in command of their own ships. Not O’Connell. Just as Higginbotham became a slave to Jim, O’Connell is a slave to the tape.
Yet she’s mastered it. JEROME ROBBINS’ BROADWAY rehearsed for a record-breaking 22 weeks; O’Connell must have surpassed that mark in preparing for this theatrical journey. You’ve known the term “Word Perfect” since the ‘80s, when that word processing application came into your life. From now on, word-perfect – not to mention letter-perfect and syllable-perfect – may have you instead thinking of O’Connell.
When Liza Minnelli did THE ACT in 1977, she had so much to do that she lip-synced a number or two. Fred Ebb told me that many times he stood at the back of the Majestic and saw many theatergoers say to the people they’d brought with them “She’s not singing! She’s lip-syncing!” It was that obvious.
O’Connell’s lip-syncing isn’t nearly as transparent. That could, however, be the result of what we’ve become conditioned to expect in a theater. In the 42 years since THE ACT, we’ve heard quite a bit of artificial sound emerging from speakers. This performance doesn’t sound any less natural than what theatergoers hear at the Delacorte Theatre when Shakespeare in the Park is in session, or even in some Broadway houses.
The lip-syncing makes her seem to be a woman possessed, a benign version of the character Linda Blair played in THE EXORCIST. Yet saying the words to the tape isn’t nearly all there is to O’Connell’s performance. The expression “Timing is everything” is very much in force here. Those who’ve learned foreign languages from tapes have often come in a second or two (or seven) too late after the instructor has asked them to speak. O’Connell never does.
Her impeccable timing also extends to when to come in and out of a grimace. She must cough and sneeze at the precisely right times, too. We’ll never know if the gestures and expressions that she uses at all resemble the ones that Higginbotham displayed during the sessions. Yet O’Connell may convince you that these were the ones.
Your fascination with the stunt will eventually be eclipsed by your becoming engrossed by O’Connell’s face full of pain. And yet, at times when relating an arduous moment, Higginbotham occasionally comes out with a laugh, obviously as a defense. She’ll probably be the sole person in the house you’ll hear laughing; only those with ice cubes in their veins won’t be horrified to hear about her torturous and arduous journey. The story is so harrowing that Cosson often had a harder time asking questions than Higginbotham had in answering them.
The credit “DANA H. by Lucas Hnath” is a bit grandiose for a “script” that is actually by Dana Higginbotham and Steve Cosson. Hnath should take an “edited by” credit, for dozens of beeps throughout the recording let us know that we’re not hearing one continuous interview.
And while we’re talking about credits, Les Waters gets one for direction. But how does one direct such a show? The tale (!) obviously wags the dog; the tape itself is the real director. On the other hand, perhaps Waters asked O’Connell for a grimace here, a smile there. We’ll never know.
Did Waters have a dilemma in a scene where Higginbotham shows a few 5-by-7 photographs as evidence? Even Row A residents can’t see what they are. Perhaps he and Hnath had decided that the piece’s hyper-realism shouldn’t be compromised with slide projections on the back wall. (Set designer Andrew Boyce’s motel room in a Days Inn that’s seen better days adds to this naturalistic feeling.)
After the first hour, O’Connell leaves the stage but her voice on the tape continues. A strange and seemingly irrelevant scene follows, unless its intention is to show that some people are simply inured to the sight of blood.
The divertissement may also be there to spare us from the atrocities for a few moments. When Cosson asked Higginbotham how she coped with her captivity, the woman matter-of-factly said “You adapt.” Yes, but only if a person has tremendous resilience akin to hers.
Even after all this, the real Dana Higginbotham miraculously returned to work and is still giving people the help they need; now, however, she’s Dr. Higginbotham, thanks to a Ph.D. in counseling. That achievement is just another reason why you’ll respect and admire Dana H. while you’re doing the same for Deirdre O’Connell.