Crow’s Theatre’s DANA H. Relocated to Factory Theatre: REVIEW

Jordan Baker as Dana H. photo by John Lauener
Jordan Baker as Dana H. photo by John Lauener

Imagine if you can being held captive for five months by a violent ex-con. This is the premise of the Crow’s Theatre production, Dana H., the Canadian premiere which opened at Factory Theatre on March 12, 2024. Based on the true story of Dana Higginbotham, a psychiatric ward chaplain who was held against her will in Florida motel rooms by Jim, a recently released inmate, this one-actor show stars Jordan Baker masterfully lip-syncing to recorded interviews made by Higginbotham. Receiving three Tony Award nominations when it appeared on Broadway, the Toronto production is directed by Les Waters and was written by Higginbotham’s son, playwright Lucas Hnath, who adapted the text from his mother’s interviews.

The play opens with Higginbotham (played by Baker) sitting in a chair in a shabby, low-budget motel room, describing the backstory of how she came to know Jim her captor. It is 1997 and upon his release from jail, Jim has attempted suicide. Higginbotham is called in to provide comfort and consultation. Because many halfway houses in the southern U.S. do not accept residents who take “psych meds”, Jim is denied a placement and finds himself with no place to live. Higginbotham decides to let him stay with her at her home over Christmas and to be honest, this is when my spidey senses were activated upon hearing about Dana’s lack of respect for her personal boundaries.

Jordan Baker as Dana H. photo by John Lauener
Jordan Baker as Dana H. photo by John Lauener

Unfortunately, Jim is not able to adjust to life outside prison and decides to kidnap Higginbotham. The two travel from North Carolina to Florida staying in seedy motels with the threat of violence present at every second. Jim brazenly takes Higginbotham with him out in public and they encounter police and medical officials.

It is at this point that I found myself asking – perhaps unfairly – how could an intelligent, educated, articulate and aware person like Higginbotham not find a way to alert the authorities with whom she came into contact that she was being held captive? This did not make sense until we hear from Higginbotham about her abusive childhood. Higginbotham reveals that as a result of this early indoctrination, she sees evil around every corner. In fact, Higginbotham’s familial foundation has so many cracks in it that she identifies more with Jim’s father when he calls her to apologize for Jim’s actions, claiming the father’s sentiment “felt like family.”

It could be argued that Higginbotham’s early experience causes her to normalize abusive relationships and results in her attracting the same types of relationships as an adult. But the relationship with Jim is more complex than that. Like many kidnapping victims, Higginbotham sees Jim as her protector, particularly when she mentions that Jim knows how to prepare a bomb to keep them safe.

Playwright Hnath clearly wants to publicize the shocking failures of the U.S. criminal justice system, in particular, law enforcement’s absolute impotence and unwillingness to deal with hardened criminals like Jim. Hnath may also want to expedite his mother’s healing process. In the interviews, Higginbotham says that she can’t tell people about these incidents as they are so incredible, and admits that she does not feel part of this world. Perhaps sharing her horrendous experiences on a global stage will help to heal her and bring her back to this world.

Set designer Andrew Boyce has brilliantly created a false floor and ceiling to reduce the space on stage to simulate Dana’s small motel room. Lighting designer Paul Toben creates striking mood transitions from the dark and suffocating ambiance of the motel room to the cheery morning after with the appearance of the unknowing maid who arrives to clean the room.

Confession: I typically avoid seeing one-actor plays because I always anticipate they will not hold my interest. Not the case here: Baker is mesmerizing in the title role, impeccably matching the timing of every laugh, cough and pause of Higginbotham’s. That performance coupled with a mind-blowing narrative makes Dana H. riveting theatre at its best.

DANA H. at Factory Theatre is being performed until April 7, 2024. Running time is 75 minutes with no intermission. Factory Theatre is located at 125 Bathurst Street. Purchase tickets online at Crow’s Theatre.

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