Review: Berkeley Rep’s stunning ‘Dana H.’ may never leave you

Dana Higginbotham (Jordan Baker) tells the story of her five-month captivity in the engrossing and captivating production of “Dana H” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through July 10. (Calvin Ngu photos)

The surreal production of “Dana H.” may be the rare show that can only be described as indescribable.

That is most certainly a good thing. But witnessing this extraordinary, wholly unique piece of theatre is to mount up onto the most harrowing journey, visceral as all get out.

The play is written by Lucas Hnath (“A Doll’s House, Part 2”), but it’s not so much a play he sat down and penned. It is a series of interviews conducted by a friend, Steve Hosson, who interviewed Hnath’s mother, Dana Higginbotham, back in 2003. For 75 minutes, the audience is taken on a journey that covers the most disturbing aspects of what it means to be a woman in America, with Dana’s actual voice telling every sordid and devastating detail. 

Back in 1997, the divorced Florida hospice chaplain Higginbotham was held hostage for five months by a mentally disturbed client. Those months, when Hnath was a student at New York University, were unending days of despair. A series of hotels, as well as mental and physical abuse, were daily occurrences. In what might be the most infuriating aspect of the story, those who should have been expected to help were completely incapable of doing so. Corruption that is often assigned to other places in the globe proved to be just as rampant in a supposedly progressive nation.

Hearing the voice of Higginbotham provides a divinity that brings forth such a strong bond between subject and audience. What further strengthens the connection is the marvelous performance of Jordan Baker, who is responsible for lip-syncing every word we hear.

Even that doesn’t tell the full story. Just notice one of the earliest moments in the play, where Baker is responsible for a slight clearing of her throat. Her hand balls in a light fist, elevated towards her pursed lips, and just like that, a magical illusion built from poignant precision. It’s every single nuance – the rustling of papers, the gentlest of head tilts, and a few moments that move with rapid fire sharpness as she corrals all of it. Baker is simply masterful.

Director Les Waters, who knows the Berkeley Rep stage as well as anyone while painting the most vivid and detailed pictures, shares the mastery of his vision in a piece that is beautifully paced and constructed. In many cases, a Waters’ show carries a surprise that moves against a show’s conventional structure to reveal a surprise. Think “In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play),” when the snow angel scene explodes out of the scenic design in the final moment.

This time, it’s a very basic action that is loaded with immense and disturbing tension. Baker is not present at that time, but the action, along with Paul Toben moving away mightily from his simple wash lighting design, explodes in vicious ways awash in colors. 

The most maddening aspect of the piece does not always deal with Higginbotham and her captor. It’s often the reality that no matter how often she found someone that should have provided real solace and protection, the person and institution failed her mightily while choosing to protect themselves. Yet the people who might have been the least equipped to bring her out of the shadows led her mercifully into the sunlight.

A feeling of one’s own blood simmering to a boil is palpable. Sickening to think that one man’s many examples of charm were direct links to a woman’s demise.

This, however, might be the most beautiful thing in this story. A demise that was all but assured because of this nation’s countless failures toward women was never accepted. Higginbotham’s transcendent career in hospice, and her explanation of solace at the end of a life is so beautiful. It’s beauty constructed from devastation, from selfless passion and deep, profound love for humanity.

“Dana H.” is not only something unlike anything one has ever seen, but unlike something one has ever heard. Watching the show is a form of penance. It is an opportunity to do something for Dana that those who failed her never did – listen. 

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents “Dana H.”
Written by Lucas Hnath
Adapted from interviews with Dana Higginbotham, conducted by Steve Cosson
Directed by Les Waters
The Word: Unbelievably profound and unlike anything I’ve ever seen, “Dana H.” is an infuriating yet powerful tour of resilience and love. A show that may never leave you.
Through July 10
The Roda Theatre
2015 Addison St., Berkeley, CA
75 minutes, no intermission
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org

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