- Dana H
Vineyard Theatre, New York, NY
“You adapt to maladaptation.” That observation is so apropos of the collective experience of our last four years. But the speaker isn’t referring to contemporary U.S. politics. These words were spoken by Dana Higgenbotham, an evangelical minister who counseled patients institutionalized in a Florida psychiatric facility and who now works with the dying in hospice care. Higgenbotham was referencing her abduction by a violent criminal whom she had supported in her professional capacity, who later kidnapped her and held her hostage as the two traveled the U.S. for five months. During that time, Higgenbotham appealed to the authorities for help; none was given.
Higgenbotham is also the mother of Lucas Hnath, the playwright to whom the play Dana H. is credited. With a title that evokes the way Freud named his case studies of hysterical female patients, the play details Higgenbotham’s traumatic experiences with her captor. The gothic quality of her hostage narrative strains plausibility. Or it would have, had I seen the play during the Obama years and had there never been a coronavirus pandemic. But I saw the production when the country was held hostage by Donald Trump, and the daily experience of [End Page 57] reading an outrageous tweet that morphed quickly into political reality made it even easier for me to suspend any disbelief about the veracity of Higgenbotham’s tale. The experience of watching Dana H., and the memory of that event after a year and a half away from live performance, made me even more conscious of our collective fatal flaw during that time. Our harmatia was our inability to instantly grasp and then resist the tsunami of brutal policy edicts that held us hostage. The dizzying conflation of truth and fiction made our state of helpless capture possible. So instead, we adapted to maladaptation as we were subjected to a series of daily shocks so dizzying and so operatic that they diminished our ability to resist and overcome their brutal effects.
Dana H. was dizzying much in the same vein. Every theatrical choice conspired to authenticate the production’s brutal and shocking narrative. Hnath is a playwright who didn’t “write” his mother’s story in a typical fashion. He asked Steve Cossen, the playwright and artistic director of The Civilians, a company specializing in investigative theatre, to interview his mother so that he could make a play from those recorded sessions. Cossen is a master of the delicate art of the interview; in his own practice he takes great care with each subject’s words and the transcribing and editing of the verbatim interview recordings. Cossen usually interviews multiple subjects and splices their exchanges together to represent different facets of a heterogenous community and offer a wide-angle lens to a story. But Cossen didn’t interview and audio-record Higgenbotham for that purpose. He captured Higgenbotham’s story in her own voice so another actor could be possessed by her and possess a part of her. He did the work so her son, the playwright, could possess it. It’s easy for an audience member to extrapolate that Hnath and his mother have too much of an emotional bond to directly address this brutal time in her life with one another. We could easily infer that the spectre of guilt haunts their mother-son relationship. Cosson’s recordings of Higgenbotham were edited instead by Hnath. Those edited and restructured recordings of Higgenbotham’s words, inflections, pauses, and breath were then lip-synched by the extraordinary actress Deidre O’Connell. Higgenbotham, as played by O’Connell, informs us in the performance that Hnath was unaware of what was happening to her throughout the duration of her captivity.
This fact seems utterly disturbing. But the play’s emphasis on the technologies of connection and capture gives body and life to Rey Chow’s theories of transme-dial entanglements that can facilitate deep fissures. Technology itself, including and especially the mimetic reproduction that is theatre, conditions us to adapt to maladaptation. Is our dependence on new and older forms of telecommunications to maintain familial attachments as we become...