by Carol Rocamora. . .

Recently, I’ve been dazzled by the miracle of transformation happening on our New York Stages today.

I’m referring to the art of an individual performer to transform himself or herself into another person so completely, so effortlessly, that it takes your breath away.

In Lucas Hnath’s stunning Dana H, now playing at the Lyceum Theater on Broadway, we see something we’ve rarely if ever seen on stage– an actress becoming another person by channeling her voice.  The playwright’s mother, Dana Higginbotham, had suffered an unimaginable trauma years ago.  While working at a psychiatric unit of a Florida hospital in 1997, she was abducted by one of her former patients, a drug-addicted white supremacist ex-convict named Jim, who held her hostage for five months.  During that period, he dragged her from one hide-out to another, beating her and raping her.  She ultimately escaped, and spent two more years hiding from him, working on a construction team.

Decades later, the playwright asked Steve Cosson, artistic director of The Civilians, a New York-based, theatre company, to interview his mother, Dana.  The edited contents of that interview, condensed into 75 riveting minutes, is played on the set of a motel room (designed by Andrew Boyce), with actress Deirdre O’Connell seated in the center.

Ms. O’Connell’s performance, directed with utter restraint by Les Waters, is nothing short of astonishing.  It’s more of a transformation than a performance.   Rarely moving her body, she sits in an armchair, lip-syncing the tape of Ms. Higginbotham’s description of her ordeal so precisely, so naturally, so effortlessly, that you are absolutely convinced that you are in that room with Mr. Hnath’s mother, hearing her testimony firsthand.  It’s more than lip-syncing – it’s a transformation, in which Ms. Higginbotham’s voice takes over the actress completely. The effect is unforgettable.

A few blocks away, at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, another miracle of transformation is taking place.  Writer/director/actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson tells a multi-cast, autobiographical coming-of-age story that is rich, heart-warming, and inspiring – all on his own.  Set in Lackawanna, New York in 1950s, the central character of his Lackawanna Blues is his “Nanny,” a woman named Rachel Crosby, the proprietress of two boarding houses and centrifugal force of her neighborhood.  As Santiago masterfully tells the story of his upbringing under Nanny’s tutelage, we meet a throng of characters in Nanny’s sphere of influence – all of whom are played by Santiago-Hudson himself.  That’s right – twenty-five characters in all, each specific, each rendered by an adjustment of his mellifluous voice and pliable body. He plays Santiago as a little boy (Junior) and then an adult (Narrator), Ol’ Po’ Carl, Melvin Earthman, Small Paul, Sweet Tooth Sam – and many more characters of different ages, genders, shapes and sizes. And, of course, there’s Nanny herself, the star of the show, whose reassurances – “It’s gon’ be alright’ – was the guiding light of Santiago’s childhood.  Each portrayal is punctuated by a tour de force performance on the harmonica – masterfully played by Santiago-Hudson himself.  His narration is accompanied on the guitar by Junior Mack, whose playing offers the rich backdrop of an era gone by.  The entire evening is written, performed and directed by Santiago-Hudson, and you feel the rich story-telling legacy of the late, great playwright August Wilson, in whose plays Santiago starred and directed.

Santiago’s tour de force performance brings to mind the amazing Anna Deavere Smith, who wrote and solo-starred in a series of landmark verbatim dramas including Fires in the Mirror (1992), Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (1994), Let Me Down Easy (2008), and Notes from the Field (2016). Her methodology – responding to a crisis, interviewing dozens of witnesses and experts, performing a selection of interviews on stage all by herself – is now legendary.   Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992  features a work in response to the devastating Los Angeles riots that spring in response to the not-guilty verdicts of four police officers who beat the black motorist Rodney King.  For that project, Ms. Deavere Smith interviewed over 350 individuals over an eight-month period.  She included forty in a one-person show she performed at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, off Broadway, on Broadway, on tour, and as a PBS film.   She played all forty characters herself.

In the powerful, moving revival of Twilight, now playing at the Signature Theater Center, Ms. Deavere Smith has revised the text for five actors – “to look again at “the broken, unwoven, never woven threads of America’s tapestry,” as she puts it in the program notes.   Her diverse, versatile cast includes Elena Hurst, Francis Jue, Wesley T. Jones, Karl Kenzler, and Tiffany Rachelle Stewart.  Each of these skilled actors plays a dizzying range of characters – ranging from Rodney King’s Aunt, Representative Maxine Waters, actor Charlton Heston, former Senators, community activists, academics, policemen, journalists, gang members, an ex-Black Panther, a clerk typist, an accountant, a liquor store owner, and so on.  All had been witnesses to, or involved in, the Rodney King incident and other incendiary events in Los Angeles that spring, including the attack on Reginald Denny, a white construction driver, pulled from his truck and beaten by the so-called “L.A. Four”, and the looting and ransacking of stores in the Korean district.  “With a cast of individuals of different races,” says the playwright about the current production, “we see perhaps the threads crossing, uncrossing and breaking in more resonant ways.”

Meanwhile, over at the Nederlander Theatre, a trio of brilliant British actors is bringing an epic saga to life.  In The Lehman Trilogy, Simon Russell Beale, Adrian Lester and Adam Godley play dozens of characters in the story spanning 170 years of the immigrant family that changed American financial history.  Watching Simon Russell Beale transform from Henry Lehman, a Bavarian immigrant to a young ingenue to a Southern plantation owner to a rabbi is one of the great magic tricks of the season.   Lester begins as Emmanuel Lehman, and as the decades pass, plays his own son, and even a thumb-sucking three-year old Lehman toddler of the next generation.  At one point, Godley plays 8 prospective brides for Philip Lehman, and a number of bawling babies!

These transformations are some of the great joys this new season brings, as New York theatre springs back to life.

Dana H.,  by Lucas Hnath, directed by Les Waters, starring Deirdre O’Connell, at the Lyceum Theatre

Lackawanna Blues, written, directed and starring Ruben Santiago-Hudson, a Manhattan Theatre Club production at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, conceived, written and revised by Anna Deavere Smith, directed by Taibi Magar, at Signature Theatre.

The Lehman Trilogy, directed by Sam Mendes starring Simon Russell Beale, Adrian Lester and Adam Godley at Nederlander Theatre.