'Dana H.' at Berkeley Rep: Who's Playing Who?

by Jim Gladstone

Bay Area Reporter

Tuesday June 21, 2022

Jordan Baker (Dana H.) in the West Coast premiere of Berkeley Rep's production of Dana H., directed by Les Waters
Jordan Baker (Dana H.) in the West Coast premiere of Berkeley Rep's production of Dana H., directed by Les Waters  (Source:Calvin Ngu/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

You can't help but focus on actress Jordan Baker's mouth during the first few minutes of "Dana H.," now on stage at Berkeley Repertory. A harrowing account of the two months that playwright Lucas Hnath's mother was held captive by a white supremacist kidnapper, and the years-long aftermath of that event, "Dana H." is also a dense strata of storytelling strategies, the foremost of which is played out on Baker's lips.

If you've been exposed to any of the publicity about Hnath's play since its Los Angeles debut in 2019, you go in knowing that each production's lead actress spends almost her entire performance lip-syncing to a recording of the real Dana Higginbotham recounting her terrifying tale to a heard, but unseen, interviewer.

In fact, the impact of the play partially depends upon on your prior awareness of this central conceit. So, at Berkeley, you find yourself staring at Baker's mouth as you listen to the same audiotape of Dana's voice that Baker is hearing through earbuds. You find yourself seeking out misalignment of lips and words, searching for gaps, errors, and imprecisions — anything that will reveal the situation's artifice.

In fact, Baker's acting — not just the movement of her lips, but the rise and fall of her breath, her hand gestures, and the way her shifting body underscores Dana's tones of voice — is pretty much perfectly calibrated to what we're hearing. And yet, even when you stop yourself from zooming in on her mouth and get caught up in the tale she's conveying, you can't ever quite forget that something disingenuous is afoot.

Even calling Hnath the "playwright" of this work feels a bit dishonest: His primary effort was in editing three days of interviews with his mother, conducted and recorded by fellow theatermaker, Steve Cosson, into the approximately 60-minute distillation played during "Dana H."

Odd electronic beeps are heard throughout the piece, indicating places where recorded segments are spliced together. What Dana said between those beeps — and whether she spoke for a minute or for hours — remains a mystery. We're listening to Hnath's mother, but also to his opinion as to what his mother says that's worth hearing.

Hnath and director Les Waters, who also helmed the play's Tony-winning Broadway production, practically beg the audience to interrogate this interview, to look for flaws and falsehoods in far more than lip-syncing: Can truth be represented in a documentary? A "true crime" story? A work of art? Where is the truth in one family member's retelling of another's story?

The sordid narrative on the surface of "Dana H." is so disturbing that it sweeps you along, even at those moments when what Dana says is hard to believe: At two points she tells police that she's being held hostage, and they shrug her off and send her back to her captor. This may give you pause for a moment, but you let it go, caught up in Dana's narrative.

On the day she was taken captive, Dana explains that she was both left by her husband and fired from her job. Her son Lucas was away at college, and she didn't want to bother him with her troubles then. And to hear her tell it in this strategically-edited version of her story, over the next months and years, he never realized she was in life-threatening peril, and she never bothered to tell him. This mother's saga mysteriously has no son in it.

"Dana H." is not the whole story. And it's not a wholly true story. It's a sidelong documentary about a guilty conscience. And it wants you to catch its untruths.

'Dana H.' at Berkeley Rep through July 10. 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. $22-$115. 510-647-2949. www.berkeleyrep.org

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