Having performed the piece last year in Los Angeles and Chicago, she knew what would happen when she slipped back into the role of the playwright’s mother, a Florida chaplain, sitting alone onstage to recount the story of her violent abduction in 1997 and the five brutal months that followed, as her captor dragged her across the South from motel room to motel room, frightened and isolated.
“There’s a nightmare that gets stimulated inside a person, just thinking about this stuff all the time,” O’Connell said the other afternoon, in a brightly lit room at the Vineyard Theater’s downtown Manhattan offices. “I loved doing it. But it’s sad, and it’s scary.”
It is also, for Hnath (pronounced nayth), personal — a story he had long thought of telling in a play. “And at various points,” he said, “my mother had expressed interest in me telling this.” Given how far its details veer from mainstream experience, though, the trouble was finding a way that wouldn’t leave audiences wondering which parts were true and which he had made up.
Enter Steve Cosson, artistic director of the Civilians. He asked Hnath over coffee in 2015 — before “A Doll’s House, Part 2” and “Hillary and Clinton” took the writer to Broadway — if he had any interest in making a piece of documentary theater.
“I have the memory, and it probably is a false memory,” Hnath said, “of it clicking in that moment and thinking, ‘O.K., this is the right story and that’s the right approach: for someone who is not me to interview my mother.’”
Why not him?
“Because of course we know each other,” Hnath said, his evident discomfort — with giving an interview in the first place, with discussing a play about his mother’s trauma — evaporating for an instant as he laughed. “I was interested in her telling the story to someone who knew nothing. So that there’s no shorthand.”
That someone was Cosson, who spent several days interviewing Hnath’s mother, Dana Higginbotham, who these days works with hospice patients. The show’s dialogue is audio culled from those recordings. Audiences hear Higginbotham describe her experience in her own voice, in her own emotional register.
And O’Connell, the Obie Award winner embodying her, lip-syncs every word as Higginbotham recalls being yanked out of her ordinary life into a terrifying subculture where she discovered that help was out of reach.
Now in previews Off Broadway at the Vineyard, where it is directed by Les Waters, “Dana H.” arrives at an interesting moment for stories of violence against women, with society re-evaluating its own metric for what constitutes a persuasive witness.
Reviewing the show in the Los Angeles Times, Charles McNulty deemed it “a sly referendum on how we process a survivor’s story,” while the critic Chris Jones, in the Chicago Tribune, noted that it prompts “the question of whether or not you are listening to a reliable narrator.”
Hnath, well aware of what he called the “circular and wobbly shape of memory,” said it was vital that the play “match the reality of somebody recounting something really, really horrific that happened to them.”
Unspooling recollections of her captor — a man raised in the Aryan Brotherhood, whom she had counseled in the hospital where he was a psychiatric patient — Higginbotham offers no florid displays of feeling as evidence of having suffered.
The striking calm of her tone on the recordings came as no surprise to Hnath, 40, who was an undergraduate at New York University at the time of her abduction, and who stipulated, before the interview for this story, that he would not fill in any biographical details or discuss the events of the play.
The matter-of-fact way that his mother speaks of that episode in her life is the same way he is forever asking actors in rehearsal to deliver lines that might otherwise seem to call for screaming or crying. (He suspects maternal influence as a possible factor in his preference for toning things down.)
To Hnath, the recording — meticulously edited though it is — serves as proof that he is not inventing details, and that a real person remembering severe, sustained emotional and physical stress might be subdued rather than agitated, might laugh in unexpected places, might weep only sparingly.
“I wanted that one layer of verification, of ‘This is what it really sounds like,’” he said. “We sort of judge the legitimacy of what people are saying by how they perform it, which I think is extremely dangerous.”
Of necessity, O’Connell’s own performance hews to Higginbotham’s expressively muted account, piped into O’Connell’s skull through earbuds.
Yet her portrayal is as fully realized as any other she might give, except that she has to squelch her voice while appearing to speak precisely in time with Higginbotham’s. There is no room for error, because the recording plunges ahead, regardless; even her breathing must match it.
It’s a skill that took a few grueling months for O’Connell, 66, to learn, with the help of a lip-syncing coach, Steve Cuiffo.
“As an actor,” she said, “I can imagine being really interested in my interpretation of her telling this story. But this is much more my really having to surrender to her interpretation of the story, and I felt like there was a sort of purifying fire inherent in that problem, in having to lip-sync her.”
Hnath, whose oeuvre hopscotches from one form to another, was in graduate school at N.Y.U. when he developed a fascination with lip-syncing and dived into the works of the experimental theater maker Reza Abdoh.
“I went to the performing arts library every weekend and watched almost everything that they had on tape of his,” he said. “Even on video, you got the sense of the sort of strangeness, and that it almost feels like the performers are possessed.”
Lip-syncing has an uncanny effect in “Dana H.,” a show that requires from O’Connell an unusual degree of isolation. Already alone onstage, she is also cut off from most of the sound of the audience. Out of town with the play, she was solitary much of the time offstage, too. So she is glad to be performing it at home in New York, where that won’t be the case.
On the day before the first rehearsal, she was high-spirited and funny, joking that she was in denial about how intense it was going to be.
“I think, ‘Why was I so tired in Chicago? Why was it all I could do to get myself from the theater to my apartment every night? What was wrong with me?’” She laughed. “But I have this memory of being kind of a broken spirit and stumbling into my apartment, and I would make a nice bath of Epsom salts and watch a cooking program.”
It’s not a physically demanding part. Emotionally is a different matter. Knowing that this is a true story “makes the world a darker place,” she said.
And, in O’Connell’s view, the play taps into a lot about the moment we’re living through, and the way that women in general — and second-wave feminists like her in particular — are lately looking at the world with fresh eyes.
Higginbotham, whom she met at opening night of “Dana H.” in Los Angeles, is “a tough cookie, and she’s very smart,” O’Connell said.
They have that in common. O’Connell remembered with perfect matter-of-factness her desire, years ago, “to be a tough enough broad to work late in the bar and walk home with my tips and not get killed.”
“I felt like my toughness and my freedom were very connected to each other,” she said, “and I feel like this play is a lot about that. About being tough enough to find yourself in a situation that would kill a lot of people, and not die. And then you have that as a sort of badge in your life.”
You also have the wounds, of course. Part of the hope of “Dana H.” — and, it seems, of Higginbotham — is that it can do something to mend them.
“What she cares about a great deal,” Hnath said, “is how can she help those people who have undergone extraordinary trauma, how can she help them heal? So I think of myself less as telling her story than as being complicit in that mission.”
He laughed to dismiss any loftiness.
But O’Connell looks at “Dana H.” as the work of a “very feminist son” trying to aid his powerful mother in taking care of her own trauma. And she finds that heartening.
“He’s helping shepherd that,” she said, “and I feel like that’s a good thing to be happening right now, as we try to make a very different world.”