It will be hard, Deirdre O’Connell says, to say goodbye—for now at least—to Dana H. at the end of this week. The off-Broadway play, which transferred to a reopened Broadway alongside Is This A Room? to create a repertory double hit at the Lyceum Theatre, will close on Nov. 28.
O’Connell is preparing for a degree of separation anxiety from her alter ego, Dana Higginbotham, the playwright Lucas Hnath’s mother whose experience of kidnapping and violence at the hands of a deranged psychopath O’Connell brings to unique life on stage in Hnath’s play. We hear Higginbotham’s voice recite her own searing, deeply disturbing testimony, which O’Connell lip-synchs.
As an audience, we do not take our eyes off O’Connell, whose face tells us as much as Higginbotham’s words. It was a surprise, given the universal critical praise for both shows and response of audiences, that the closing of the shows was announced, then an equally surprising reprieve, extending their stage life to the end of this month. Many will be hoping for another miracle so their lifespans might be extended further. Tony nominations for the shows, including their leads O’Connell and Is This A Room’s Emily Davis, would be well-merited.
O’Connell, a dedicatedly downtown actor, says she never had expectations of any Broadway success. On TV in recent years, The Affair fans would recognize her as Athena, Alison’s (Ruth Wilson) hippy-dippy mother. With Dana H., she feels grateful to have been “caught in the crosshairs of many geniuses. I was a strong participant in making the piece. I was not a puppet in this. But the vision and clarity of the artists involved is an amazing amalgam, and one that none of us knew would work.”
“It will be hard to say goodbye to her, and that’s not always the case with characters,” O’Connell says. “I’m usually pretty good at saying goodbye to my roles. I am not sentimental like that. But Dana H. has gotten under my skin, and during the process of creating this drama, a strange thing has happened to me. I love this character so much it will feel like a little bit of a death. That’s hard. I feel protective of her. I feel it’s my job to protect her, and her toughness and spirituality.
“Even if we feel those situations could not happen to us, Dana is willing to do the kind of work that we are not, and willing to expose herself in ways a lot of people do not.”
— Deirdre O’Connell
“This is kind of remarkable to me because I don’t know if I have either of those things in myself to the extent that she has. Her willingness to put this story out there is amazing, given so many people say, ‘How could have this happened to you?’ ‘What is wrong with you?’ I think this is because it is terrifying to us. Even if we feel those situations could not happen to us, Dana is willing to do the kind of work that we are not, and willing to expose herself in ways a lot of people do not.”
For the play first to be canceled had been surprising for O’Connell given the warm reception of audiences and critics. “We were all incredibly sad. I felt like an abject failure. Then when I found out we were extending, I was beside myself happy. It was a Thanksgiving miracle. It was also earned, for both shows.” While the end is in sight, O’Connell says she wouldn’t mind if it extended again through February. Theater fans will cross their fingers.
“I was hesitant, because I wondered if I would hate to do it”
O’Connell has also been happy to be back in the theater after a year and a half of creating theater on Zoom. “Needs must” and all that, but O’Connell says she always found herself feeling “very self-conscious and very embarrassed afterwards. It took me 24 hours to recover. Zoom makes it feel like you’re turning an acting machine on. We are pretending to have interactions, not showing off our capacity to interpret material and have emotional vulnerability.”
Making Dana H. was, at first at least, its own minefield. It is a unique piece of theater, with O’Connell’s memorization of the text, her silent habitation of the lead character, and her ability to lip-synch and interpret Higginbotham’s words in real-time—she has them piped into her ears; we listen to them on speakers—the keys to the success of her astonishing theatrical tightrope walk.
O’Connell said she was nervous for her own “selfish reasons, that I could not do it. I did not know if I had an affinity for it. Would it feel claustrophobic, the opposite of artistic freedom? Would I feel like an automaton to this thing? It was going to take so long to learn and rehearse it, and I was signing on to do it at several different venues. I was hesitant, because I wondered if I would hate to do it. So, there were those fears, but once we were doing it in rehearsals, I knew I loved doing it. And we, as a company, knew we loved doing it.”
“It’s like being a concert pianist. When it’s going well, you feel really clear.”
— Deirdre O’Connell
For O’Connell, the key to performing the piece was to memorize sections, and then “give in to the weird surrender of it.” She has it so down pat and technically precise that she knows if she is the slightest bit ahead of Higginbotham in the lip-synch, or behind. She finds herself sometimes thinking, “Oh shoot, I wish I could have gotten that last section a bit better,” “I’m a bit nervous of the section coming up,” “Oh good, I like this section coming up.” Her mind has to be “really clean,” she said. “It’s like being a concert pianist. When it’s going well, you feel really clear.”
At the outset, O’Connell said the team knew that Dana H. was “odd and interesting” to do. Rehearsals had gone well. But the worry remained that once an audience saw it, they may walk out saying, “What is this?”
This reporter wondered what her intention was: an act of mimicry, lip-synching, an inhabitation? O’Connell says the performance has changed as time has gone on, indeed changes performance to performance. At first it was a technical exercise to master, and O’Connell became “very unforgiving” of herself when her timing is a little off. “My standards are now very high for what a perfect technical show is. But a perfect, technical show is not really my goal, even though I like them to be like that. It’s quite an unpredictable ride in what comes up for me. It’s always taking me somewhere I didn’t expect.”
Higginbotham has been to see the show three times, said O’Connell. The first few times she was worried about what Higginbotham thought of her. “I was thinking, ‘What gives me the balls to think I could do this? What right do I have, in light of this already having happened and she sitting in the room probably being re-traumatized by me doing it?’ But somehow, when I have done it however many hundreds of times, it felt right to do the piece. I didn’t necessarily feel that at first if she was there, but I have a different level of ownership of the character now.”
The first time Higginbotham saw it she told O’Connell, “I’m pleased.” The second time she saw it, O’Connell says, she said, “Now it’s yours,” which felt like “a huge knighting of me,” says O’Connell. When she came to the Broadway production, sheer numbers of people prevented the women from speaking. O’Connell laughed that when she first got the role she had wanted to go to visit Higginbotham to speak to her and take in as much of her life as possible. “There was always a scheduling problem stopping me from taking the trip. Eventually, I was like, ‘OK, I’m giving up. Everything I need to know will be on this tape.’”
“Dana saw inside a closed door, and came back to us to tell the tale.”
— Deirdre O’Connell
This critic and others have raised questions about the real-life events around what happened to Higginbotham that the play doesn’t make clear—how she stayed missing for so long, whether there were searches for her, whether Hnath knew his mother was missing, and what happened before and after certain situations we see. O’Connell, without wishing to elaborate on specifics, says she was “given access to more material which answered a lot of the questions I had. It became clearer and clearer to me.” For Hnath, it was a fatefully perfect storm of events, which allowed her assailant to have access to Higginbotham.
His actions, said O’Connell, had given her a window into the “blood and protein” of white supremacists, and their links to law enforcement. “Dana saw inside a closed door, and came back to us to tell the tale,” said O’Connell. The play, in graphic terms, makes clear how imperiled Higginbotham was. “Like people in bad marriages know, the worst moment is the moment when you decide to leave,” says O’Connell. “He became more unhinged as time went by. He got crazier.”
O’Connell is always happiest when she reaches the last passages of Dana H., where Higginbotham’s route to safety swims into view. She too feels “smacked around” by the text, both—as Higginbotham herself has done—“negotiating how to tell the story, and also surviving telling the story at the same time.”
It’s such a unique thing to stage, the production team went to a number of Broadway stages to figure out the best fit last summer. The Lyceum works, says O’Connell, because of its intimacy. The play, “an empathy machine,” as she puts it, hits the audience most directly in such a small, contained space. She can feel the stillness of us watching her, even if the bright lights mean she can’t see a sea of masked faces. “I feel the concentration of the audience,” she says.
I was never someone who was like, ‘I want to get on Broadway’
The show is a career high. O’Connell grew up in Massachusetts, enjoying performing in local theater from a young age. In her early forties, she says she thought she should make money, so she moved to Los Angeles, where she played “the sidekick or a best friend” in made-for-TV movies. But she became so artistically disenchanted that she moved back to New York. Frugality is her friend. As she has aged, she has become more aware of “the athleticism of being an actor” in order to do the best work, especially doing eight performances a week.
“I was never someone who was like, ‘I want to get on Broadway.’ I wanted to be an actor, and have gotten to do that for longer than I expected. I did not have a sense of being denied something that I deserved or had earned. I didn’t have that feeling towards Broadway. But it’s been very nice that it’s shown an experimental piece of theater can make it on Broadway, and that we should not underestimate Broadway audiences’ sophistication.” O’Connell thinks Broadway will not only survive but with the successful examples of Is This A Room and Dana H. begins to evolve in what it shows.
O’Connell laughs as she recalled waiting for her cousin, not near the theater, and being recognized by a stranger on the street. She has “never imagined being in an eligible category for a Tony award,” but may well be. “I’m very happy the piece has got so much recognition,” she says. “The fact it happened during the pandemic feels meaningful too. It’s been such a dark time.”
She will find out if Dana H. brings an increased range of professional opportunities—the next play she has in the diary is one this coming summer. There is not a paucity of roles for older female actors on stage, O’Connell says, although “with film and TV I don’t expect a hell of a lot.”
“You are watching this strange act which is more than just pretending. It is a science experiment!”
— Deirdre O’Connell
When I ask if she has become proprietary of Dana H., which has so far been only her role to perform, she says, “If anybody else does it, they’ll realize anyone can do it, and at the moment everyone thinks I am the only person who can do it! During the pandemic, it felt like treading water wondering if I would perform it again. I wondered, ‘Am I never again going to do one of those plays where you read the lines, pretend to have thoughts, and say them?’ But once we started working in it again, I just felt incredibly grateful that we had a piece to rebuild, rather than build from scratch.”
The “empathy machine” O’Connell employs night after night to transmit the story requires different levels of simpatico with the source material, she said. She recalled seeing Fires in the Mirror, Anna Deavere Smith’s theatrical piece about the 1991 Crown Heights riot, and how her inhabitation of so many characters “was like watching a spiritual act. Somebody putting themselves through that results in empathy. It was like science. She was turning herself into a petri dish. It was thrilling to me. There wasn’t just this thing she wanted to communicate, she wanted to put herself through the toothpaste tube of other people’s language. I hope for similar reasons Dana H. is compelling—you are watching this strange act which is more than just pretending. It is a science experiment!”
“I feel extremely lucky and extremely happy right now, that’s the basic feeling,” says O’Connell, laughing again in farewell. “If I can’t be happy right now, I would need serious medication.”