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After an award-winning run at the Vineyard Theatre in early 2020, Dana H. transfers to Broadway for a limited engagement at the Lyceum Theatre, where it will play in repertory with Is This A Room. This interview was conducted during the show's Off-Broadway run, prior to theatres closing due to the pandemic.
Obie winner Deirdre O'Connell tackles her greatest acting challenge yet in Dana H. at the Vineyard Theatre
When Lucas Hnath first approached Deirdre O'Connell about portraying his mother in his one-woman play Dana H., she was wary. It's not that she was scared of playing the playwright's mom—she'd actually done it before, in a workshop of a different script that Hnath ended up abandoning. But in Dana H. she wouldn't be using her own voice. Instead, she would be lip-syncing to candid interviews Hnath's mother, Dana, gave in 2015, recounting her brutal five-month abduction by a psych ward patient in 1997.
"When I was talking to Lucas about this piece for the first time, I said, 'I don't know if I can do this,'" O'Connell admits. Although she had four decades of complex roles under her belt (a failing matriarch in The Way West, an underemployed singer in The Fulfillment Center, her Obie-winning turn as a drama teacher in Circle Mirror Transformation, to name a few), she had never lip-synced before. Could she do it convincingly? Would she like it? Or would it feel, as she puts it, "horribly claustrophobic?"
While lip-syncing may seem to be the purview of drag queens and Jimmy Fallon, a handful of plays have used it for dramatic effect. In fact, O'Connell, 66, remembered seeing one: Spalding Gray's 1977 work Rumstick Road at the Wooster Group. "The late, great Ron Vawter did a phone call in it where he lip-synced," she recalls. "It was maybe two minutes long, but I have never forgotten it. It was so vivid to me. All of a sudden the air went out of the room; it was like a ghost had just entered. It took my breath away."
O'Connell shared that recollection with Hnath and, lo and behold, that same scene was his inspiration for Dana H. "Lucas was too young to have seen it on stage, but he owned the DVD!" she says. "That's when I said, 'Okay, I'm going to do this.'" After critically acclaimed runs in Los Angeles and Chicago, O'Connell is now performing Dana H. Off Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre.
Watching O'Connell become Dana H. is eerie. She comes on stage and sits in a chair from which she rarely moves during the play's 75 minutes. A stagehand helps her put in earbuds, so the audio is piped directly to her. And then it's like a séance. It feels as if Dana H. is somehow speaking through O'Connell. Even ambient noises on the recording—pages flipping, bracelets jangling—are mimed perfectly.
To prepare for the role, O'Connell spent weeks going "down the dark rabbit hole" of memorization. Director Les Waters also connected her with lip-sync expert Steve Cuiffo, who works with Lypsinka. She learned quickly that just mouthing the words wasn't enough; she also had to sync up her breathing and speed of thought. "I had to get on her train and just go!" says O'Connell. "Acting is kind of like a weird poker game and this is one that has no mercy. It's got a vicious tell."
Even though O'Connell doesn't verbalize any of Dana H's words, she still channels her emotions. And while Dana H. is surprisingly matter-of-fact as she chronicles horror after horror at the hands of a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, there are moments when her memories overwhelm. O'Connell feels it. "It's a dark, dark thing to be thinking about every day, but there is also a real pleasure that's uncanny," she says. "To just sort of surrender—it's got to be exactly like this and that's the job. It's unlike most acting where you're constantly making decisions and second-guessing those decisions. I don't get to have any options, which in a way is a big relief."
During rehearsals, O'Connell considered meeting Dana H., who now works with hospice patients. "I thought, I should go to Florida and meet her and have her show me the sights!" she says. But schedules didn't align, and the two didn't come together until opening night of Dana H. in L.A. "I was happy that when I met her, she felt familiar to me," says O'Connell. "We didn't really talk that much. I was just staring at her and she was just staring at me—we just stared at each other! We were so beyond, 'Hey, how you doing?' We skipped all those steps you have with a normal relationship."
While O'Connell admits the show takes a toll—Epsom salt baths and massages help—she says she loves doing it. "I feel like a concert pianist," she says. "The terrifying pressure of wanting it to work exactly the same way every time, there's just a falling forward into this precision."
But she adds that it makes her feel "fragile," at least temporarily. "When bad things have happened to me—as they do to all of us in life—there is always a period of time when I feel fragile. Once I realized that, things became easier. It's as if I have just gone through something hard—even though I personally haven't had to go through anything like what Dana did. I was trying to watch a James Bond movie the other night and I was like, I can't handle this. They're blowing up too much stuff! I need to watch a show where they just bake cakes."
Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages and a contributing theatre critic to Time Out New York. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Deirdre O'Connell in Dana H. Photos by Carol Rosegg.
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