The word that seems to crop up most often in descriptions of both Dana H., the play written by Lucas Hnath, and Dana H., the characterization by Deirdre O’Connell, is “harrowing,” – few reviewers could resist, for the simple reason that no other word seems to come close to capturing the real-life experience that the work chronicled and the effect the telling had on audiences.
Dana H., which ran on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre last fall and is nominated for three Tony Awards (for Les Waters’ direction, Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design and O’Connell’s performance), tells the unlikely but all too true story of Dana Higginbotham, the mother of the playwright, a chaplain in a Florida psychiatric hospital who, in 1997, was abducted by a violent psychopath who’d been under her care. Terrorized, gaslighted, threatened and subjected to horrific physical and sexual abuse, the abduction lasted for five months, from one motel to another, in the dark of night and broad daylight, hotel clerks and police officers repeatedly turning blind eyes.
As if demanding that the universe finally pay heed to her story, Dana H. is told not only told in the words of the woman who lived it, but in her voice: O’Connell, in one of the most mesmerizing performances of the year, lip-synced to recorded interviews of Higginbotham. The effect was an unforgettable portrait of trauma and survival, at once nightmarish and weirdly commonplace.
O’Connell is a familiar and acclaimed presence on the New York stage (currently appearing in Will Arbery’s Corsicana, directed by Sam Gold at Playwrights Horizons) and known to TV and film audiences for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche, New York, Law & Order and, indelibly, her performance as the free-spirited, egregiously irresponsible Athena Bailey, mother to Ruth Wilson’s Alison Bailey in Showtime’s The Affair.
She did not, however, tap-dance as a child on Fernwood 2 Night, despite what you might read elsewhere. In this interview with Deadline, O’Connell talks about that weird non-credit, about Dana, about Athena and about the challenges of carrying a Broadway show without uttering a single syllable.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
DEADLINE: When did you first hear of Dana Higginbotham and Dana H., the real person and the play?
DEIRDRE O’CONNELL: It was Lucas getting in touch with me and asking me if I wanted to work on it with him and he sent me the transcript, and it was quite clear to me instantly that I really wanted to, but I was pretty scared because I wasn’t sure whether I could do it. I wasn’t sure that I could lip sync like that. I’ve never seen anybody do it, and I didn’t know if it was possible, and I didn’t know if I would have a particular gift for it or just not be able to do it. You know, it’s just one of those things, like you don’t know if your brain works that way or if you have the mechanics because I’d never done it. So, that part scared me. I wondered if it would be very claustrophobic. I wondered if I would be too sad, you know, when I was working on it. All those things went through my mind, but the thing was so beautiful, the piece of writing was so beautiful, the interview was so beautiful, the idea was so compelling, and I sort of went into it thinking if I can do this, great. If I can’t do it, then at some point I’ll just…I said, “if I can’t do it, I’m just going to turn to you guys and go, like, look, I’m just bad at this. Somebody else would be better at this.”
So, we kind of went into it with that deal in mind, but it was an experiment from the beginning. Like, can we actually pull this off, and then will it be theater that people want to sit and watch? Those were all questions that I didn’t know the answer to when we went in. So, it was pretty exciting actually because, a lot of times you go in and you go like, well, it’s ours to screw up here, but was very much like, “I wonder if the audience will just stand up and leave?” The fact is though that Lucas saw a perfect thing in his mind. He saw what it should be, and he saw a perfect thing, and then it just took all the years it took to build the perfect thing, but he saw the machine glowing in the distance.
DEADLINE: Was your trepidation about the mechanics of the lip syncing, just the physical requirements of that, or the added burden of have to act on top of the lip-syncing? It seems to me those are two distinct challenges.
O’CONNELL: Yeah. It was a particular challenge that as actors we don’t necessarily get to have that kind of precision being asked of us at the same time as we’re being asked to live and breathe inside of something. So to really be in somebody else’s breath, and…she just moved from thought to thought without a beat, or she just laughed at this thing that I would never laugh at, or just the speed of her thoughts, you know? I think as actors sometimes we sit in the feelings of things because we think that’s where the juice is, but people often actually move much more quickly from point to point and don’t necessarily demonstrate the experience of their traumas. We don’t display our hearts as much as I think actors think we do, so I learned a lot about that. I learned a lot about how people hide themselves but actually communicate more.
It was a really interesting thing that way, but yes, to answer your question, I was afraid of all of it. As one would be. It was just such a scary, dark tale, and I felt such a deep sense of responsibility because it’s a real person, and the real person’s son was building the piece as a task for himself to be able to bear witness to his mom, and so I felt like I had a responsibility to not mess around with that and to not get in the middle of it, and yet, completely take it on. So, it’s a balancing act between sort of drawing attention to your own, like, look at my acting right now, look at that thing that I’m able to do, and then take away all that ego. I couldn’t have any of those kind of thoughts going on, as I had to offer myself to the process quite completely. At a certain point, it became not a technical task. It was really, I just had to enter it.
DEADLINE: Was there ever a point in your process when you vocalized the dialogue, rather than just mouthed it?
O’CONNELL: Just for myself? Sure. I would sometimes, especially if we had some time off, like for example, a year and a half after the pandemic, when I had to relearn it. I would let myself be saying it out loud when I was first relearning it and when I was first learning it, but a lot of the illusion, just the magic illusion work of it had to do with making as little sound with my mouth as humanly possible. Because even those little mouth sounds, the whole illusion worked better if there were none. So that meant that even the S’s and T’s and P’s had to like magically just not quite hit. It was crazy because it took learning how to do a thing that I’ll never have to do again. They took a long time to learn but I won’t need those skills ever again.
DEADLINE: Playing that horror night after night, did that stay with you?
O’CONNELL: It did stay with me, and I had to be really good to myself. I had to take care of myself, and I didn’t do a whole hell of a lot else. I don’t know if you’ve ever had anything terrible happen to you, but when it does, for example, you just can’t watch scary television. You have to watch like a baking show. So, I was living a very like lite life outside of it. I had to get massages. I had to do all those things to just keep myself balanced, and that was kind of my work, was to keep myself as healthy and buoyant and be as gentle with myself as possible while I was doing it.
It was a haunting thing, but I think that there’s a way though that I found the story of her and a work that I began to participate in of bringing somebody from such isolation into a feeling of, all right, I’m going to tell you exactly who I am, exactly what I’ve been through. I’m not going to have a secret anymore. Participating in that was actually very rejuvenating. So, I wasn’t just walking around in a state of trauma. I also felt like I was a very lucky person in that I was every night able to help bring myself into a healthier feeling about the secrets that we hold, bring Dana into that, and then so many people would talk about that. They would talk about, yeah, I felt completely like I was holding a secret and it made me different than everyone around me, and therefore, I am slightly alienated in my life.
I think so many of us walk around like that, and the piece is essentially about that, and so, there was a feeling of a buoyancy to what the piece really was, you know? It’s funny, like because we’re talking about the responsibility of making something that, I don’t know, is triggering or all these words that we use, and my experience talking to people was not that people said, oh God, that triggering, and some would say, oh, that’s going to haunt me for a while, but a lot of people, particularly if they had something in their lives that was haunting them or something that they felt they were ashamed of, that they saw a path in our story. There was a path made by us in that piece that was actually very useful and made people feel, I don’t know, just freer and happier in the world. So, I don’t think it was just like we just want everyone to feel really…it wasn’t like making a horror movie where you really want to scare the hell out of everybody and make them have nightmares at night. The point of it was quite uplifting, I think. I felt uplifted a lot of the time, ultimately. It was that last 15 minutes of it that you kind of lived for.
DEADLINE: One of the things we’re reminded of is the sort of dichotomy between what’s being said and how it’s being said, that we have this idea that unless a person is sort of hysterical and weeping we can’t trust the story of trauma they’re telling.
O’CONNELL: I felt that so much. As an actor who’s played the mother of a kid who got killed on Law and Order and sat on the, you know, sat in that story weeping and sort of felt like, this isn’t quite how this really happens in real life, As an actor to have often had a slight allergic reaction to pushing the envelope of what we think it looks like for somebody to actually tell the truth about something terrible happening, [and thinking] no, actually, that’s not how people necessarily behave when they’re telling the truth about something terrible that’s happened to them, and sometimes people have reactions that are completely unexpected but it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. Sometimes people are able to talk about things very articulately and very clearly and with a cold eye, and that’s being a survivor. That’s not being a liar.
DEADLINE: I was reminded of Dana H. recently while watching some of the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial, and so much of the commentary even in this day and age is not about the truth of what she might be saying, but how she’s saying it, how she’s acting, which of course means is she acting the way we want her to act?
O’CONNELL: God. It just makes you so mad.
DEADLINE: Maybe Dana H. should have been required viewing for everyone on that jury.
O’CONNELL: I hope I can bring that lesson forward into my work, but I also feel like we just bring it forward into life. I’m so glad that that’s the thing that you came away with because that was one of the things that was so exciting for me. There’s something so beautiful about a person [like Dana] who has, whether you could say it’s healthy or not healthy, there is something kind of beautiful about a person who is able to put a cold eye on something and say, “yeah, this is what it was. And I am not going to cry for you.”
DEADLINE: I think with Dana H. the point is reinforced by the use of her actual recorded voice, because it eliminates the possibility of an audience saying, well, this is not reality it’s just an actor’s dramatic interpretation….
O’CONNELL: That’s why we had to do it the way we did it, and of course, you know, I was kicking and screaming. I was like, Lucas, can’t we just do it as a monologue? It would be so fun for me. And he was like, “no, that’s not the exercise. The exercise will not be like, wow, you did such a good job doing that monologue. That’s not the point. The point is for me to learn how it actually works in real life. And you get to participate with that.”
DEADLINE: Were you surprised when it moved to Broadway last fall? There was so much talk at the time about Dana H. and Is This A Room being so unconventional, maybe too unconventional, for Broadway.
O’CONNELL: Gobsmacked, I guess is the word. Completely surprised, yes. I mean, we would make jokes about it. It didn’t seem in the slightest realm of possibility when we were working on it, and that was fine, you know? This piece was being made for a very different kind of venue and for very different kinds of reasons, and we weren’t even sure it would work at all, and so, to have it go all the way to Broadway and have it be embraced there, there was not a moment when I felt like the audience was confused or not just completely locked in to what the event was. They were completely ready for the subtle thrill ride that it was.
There was no difference between being Off Broadway and being on Broadway with the audience. I mean, it was fun to have chandeliers on Broadway. That made it all feel like, we really mean it, you know? There’s a we really mean it that goes with Broadway, which is kind of cool to have to meet that challenge.
DEADLINE: I have to ask, did you see the viral meme around Thanksgiving with you, as Dana, sitting in that chair as part of the Macy’s parade?
O’CONNELL: Yes. And there was another one where I was sitting on the subway.
The Macy’s parade one was so funny. I would make jokes with Emily [Davis, of Is This A Room], like, we wanted somebody to make like big heads of us and be walking around in Times Square for the parade, just like Mickey and Minnie.
DEADLINE: Did the Tony nomination bring a sense of vindication, like, yes, this kind of theatrical work can exist on Broadway?
O’CONNELL: I hadn’t thought of the word vindication really. I think the vindication, if there was any, came with being in the room with the audience. That feeling of like, oh my goodness, [producer] Matt Ross was right. We have underestimated this audience this whole time. They are not only ready for this, they’re ahead of it. But in terms of the nomination, I mean, it’s just beautiful. It’s just a great, lovely thing to be on that list, to be on that awesome list of women. Vindication isn’t exactly it. I get more of a feeling of, yeah, it’s much simpler than we thought – we kind of belong here. It’s more a gentle like, oh, a-ha, I did not realize this. I mean, I never felt like Goddamn it Dana H. should be on Broadway. It was me more waking up and blinking and going, well, I just underestimated the way all this works. I thought I was an outsider this whole time, that I’ve just been like clunking along saying i’m a way outsider and I’m fine with that. But it turns out not so much. And that’s very nice.
Maybe it’s a little bit like that line that Dana has of once you put your secret out there you realize that the world is ready for your story, and you can be less alienated. You can be more open.
DEADLINE: Did you see any parallels between Dana and Athena, your character on The Affair who was also a mother? Which I think may be the only connection.
O’CONNELL: [Laughs] Well, they’re mothers. But no, I never did, but I should look into that. I think that Athena would have great admiration for the work that Dana does in hospice. I think Athena and Dana could’ve met at some point. Athena would’ve wanted to get all the information Dana has about how to help people through things. It’s funny. I’ll think about it.
DEADLINE: One more thing: Is it true you were once on Fernwood 2 Night, the late ’70s Norman Lear talk show parody. It’s on your IMdB page.
O’CONNELL: [Laughs] I think I would remember that. Maybe I did a voiceover for them or something and in a weird fluke it ended up on Wikipedia or something. As you can probably tell, I don’t really take care of my Wikipedia very well.
But I would remember being on Fernwood because I loved that show. No, I wasn’t on it.
DEADLINE: The clip on YouTube that is supposed to be you is an 8-year-old blonde girl tap dancing.
O’CONNELL: Well, there you go. You’ve gone deeper into the mystery than I have. But no, I was not a good 8-year-old tap dancer. That’s hilarious.
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