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Jordan Baker in Dana H., presented by Crow’s Theatre at Factory Theatre in Toronto.John Lauener/Crow's Theatre

  • Title: Dana H.
  • Written by: Lucas Hnath
  • Adapted from: Interviews with Dana Higginbotham conducted by Steve Cosson
  • Director: Les Waters
  • Actors: Jordan Baker
  • Company: A Crow’s Theatre presentation of the Goodman Theatre, Center Theatre Group and Vineyard Theatre production.
  • Venue: Factory Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: To April 7

Critic’s Pick

Dana H., a true-crime play about a harrowing abduction, is one of the most disturbing and disorienting pieces of live theatre you will ever experience.

In critical circles, director Les Waters’s production of this highly unusual reality drama by Lucas Hnath, was the most talked about on Broadway in the 2021-22 season, not Tony Award winner The Lehman Trilogy.

Dana H., now being presented by Crow’s Theatre at Factory Theatre in Toronto, is the kind of artistically significant medium-scale show that makes waves and becomes a regular reference point in the United States, but that too often has not travelled to Toronto in the past decade.

I’m truly thankful to Crow’s for finding a way to bring in the original Goodman Theatre, Center Theatre Group and Vineyard Theatre Production for its international premiere, so Canadians can try to unpick its strange knots, too.

There are two groups of people who will absolutely want to get tickets to Dana H.

The first is aficionados of true crime. The play is, on one level, simply a riveting podcast in that genre.

Over the course of 75 minutes, Dana H.’s audience listens to edited recordings of audio interviews with Dana Higginbotham – playwright Hnath’s mother – conducted by Steve Cosson, a colleague of Hnath’s, play over the Factory Theatre’s sound system.

On stage, meanwhile, Higginbotham’s real words, pauses, ahs and uhs are all impeccably lip-synced to by actor Jordan Baker who, for the most part, sits in a chair on a set that looks like a motel room.

She calmly recounts her story about being held captive for many months by a man named Jim, a member of the Aryan Brotherhood – a neo-Nazi prison gang and organized crime outfit – whom she ministered to as a chaplain in the psychiatric ward of a Florida hospital.

After being discharged before Christmas, Jim had no place to go, and was invited home by Dana’s husband at the time for a short spell.

Later, after Higginbotham and her husband separated, Jim arrived at her home, smashed her phone and her nose and kept her prisoner on the road for a traumatic five months.

In her answers to the unseen Cosson’s questions, Higginbotham chronicles this terrible experience and her attempts to escape. Describing how police and other people she encountered reacted to her pleas for help lead her to theorize about the sway the Aryan Brotherhood hold over parts of the South in the United States.

This is, no doubt, terrifying. The fact that Dana H. is framed as a play “written by Lucas Hnath,” but adapted from transcripts of interviews that he did not personally conduct, invites the audience to puzzle over what exactly they are listening to and why the show was created in this roundabout way.

There are moments where you might wonder if Dana – to distinguish the character from the real person – is describing reality because it is so strange; at times, she consults what she calls her “manuscript” to recall the chronology of events.

But anyone familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder – or who is aware that there is no such thing as a perfect victim – will not be able to dismiss her description of what happened to her.

The second group of people who will want to see Dana H. is those who are interested in what live theatre can do that can’t be done on television or in film or, for that matter, a podcast.

On one level, the staging of the play by Waters is hyperrealistic.

Baker, though she is lip-syncing to a recording, gives an extremely naturalistic performance as Higginbotham, to the extent that each time you hear the woman’s bracelets or the rustling of a piece of paper, she enacts the exact actions that would make those sounds.

The set is, likewise, a perfect copy of a motel room – but, as mentioned early on, these interviews took place in a theatre space. Here again then, the show is realistic while being one step removed from reality.

This is a powerful theatrical metaphor for the disassociation some sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder experience: a feeling of detachment from one’s own body or mind or even the world around them.

Those who have seen the Olivier-winning dance-theatre hybrid Betroffenheit, which premiered in Toronto in 2015 – and I wonder if Hnath did on its world journey – will recall how Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite and actor and writer Jonathon Young likewise explored the latter’s personal trauma to devastating effect through lip-syncing to a recording in a metaphorical room.

There are other theatrical elements of Dana H. that made me think of that show and its power, too – but it’s not in any way derivative. The design in terms of light, sound and set combines with direction to create a truly hair-raising experience.

I don’t want to write any more and ruin a moment. This is a show that must be experienced.

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