Theater Review: DANA H. (Berkeley Repertory)

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by Harvey Perr on June 15, 2022

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


I’ve been singing the praises of Lucas Hnath‘s Dana H. ever since I first saw it three years ago in Los Angeles. Time has not altered my feelings. If anything, as the Berkeley Rep production proves, its power has not diminished in the least, and my feelings are deeper than ever. This is a once-in-a-lifetime play, simultaneously harrowing and exhilarating, which proves that an act of inspired imagination is inimitable. You just aren’t going to have an experience like this again. You owe it to yourself, if theater is as important to you as it is to me, to see Dana H.

To walk into a theater without knowing anything about a play, to be open to surprise, to allow oneself to want to discover what is inside a playwright’s head as that playwright reveals each new twist and turn, is to fully realize what it means to be in the presence of a kind of terrible beauty that any work of art aspires to. And so my inclination is to tell you nothing and let the pleasures come to you as the play unfolds, or, for that matter, to have revealed to you what you can and cannot respond to in the theater when push comes to shove.

If I tell you what it’s about, you simply won’t have the pleasure of finding out for yourself. If I describe the method Hnath uses to tell his story, it, too, would dissipate the excitement of wonder, the wonder that comes with participating in an experiment, rather than merely being a member of an audience.

What you will have heard by now — if you have heard anything — is that Dana Higginbotham is a real person; she is, in fact, the mother of the playwright, who underwent a mind-bending and heart-breaking and soul-crushing kidnapping and who lived to tell about it by allowing her son’s friend to tape her story in her own voice.

And it is that voice you hear. The actor playing the part is literally lip-synching what we hear on the tape. Again, to tell too much is to eliminate the magic which transports us to a place of enlightenment even as the character we are getting to know intimately is describing a season in hell.

To even tell you what it is the director has done is to give away a sense of what makes real life interesting but what makes theatre even more interesting. So let’s just say that Les Waters, the director, has uncovered an entire world of the human psyche and pushes it to the point where all memory becomes sacrament.

And he does it in the plainest setting, a generic and fairly grim motel room like millions of motel rooms we have all visited at least once in our lives, and, in one breathtaking moment, in the time it takes for a chambermaid to change the sheets and air out the room, that motel room becomes a swirling, electrifying trip through time and space. Andrew Boyce designed the set, and Paul Toben supplied the brilliant lighting, and their contributions are perfect. The strongest achievement of the evening may belong to Mikhail Fiksel (who just won a Tony for his often startling ability to create a sound tape that both draws us in and pushes us away, so that it is both as real as rain and as fantastic as something we may have dreamed).

It was easy, seeing it the first time, to think the play was the sum of the performance given by Deirdre O’Connell, whose wounded presence still haunts me, and, as I might have assumed, was the reason she walked away with a Tony the other night. You may not have heard her real voice, but she found in Dana H’s voice her own way to move through the part while sitting absolutely still.

What, I wondered, would another actor do with the same part, and would the play have the same urgency? Jordan Baker did not in any way imitate Ms. O’Connell, projecting less the vulnerability of the character but more the feeling of a woman telling a story that she is no longer connected to as painfully as when she experienced it, and she therefore reveals something excitingly different even though the voice we hear and the words that are being spoken are exactly the same. Sound intricate and complicated? I’m sure it is, but the sensation is of spending time with someone you truly care about. Ultimately, it is because, in letting her tell her own story, Hnath shows such compassion and admiration for his own mother.

The play is the thing (even if it is a construct rather than conventional playwriting), and the major difference between seeing the play twice, with different actors, is to discover that fact. Lucas Hnath’s Dana H. is, put simply, a masterpiece.

photos by Calvin Ngu/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Dana H.
Berkeley Rep
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2025 Addison Street @ Shattuck
ends on July 10, 2022
for tickets, call 510.647.2949 or visit Berkeley Rep

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