conceived, written and performed by
Anna Deveare Smith
As actress Anna Deavere Smith leaps from role to role in her ambitious new solo show Let Me Down Easy, tackling issues of healthcare, wellness, and dying in the United States, there’s a palpable shift in the shape of her mouth; her swagger changes, she grabs hold of a new prop, and she’s firmly in control of a new personality.
You see, Smith’s brand of theatre combines solo performance with verbatim theatre techniques. All of the monologues in this latest show are taken directly – even down to the sorts of repetitive vocal tics common in everyday speech – from actual interviews conducted by Smith, recreated on-stage each night, as if she’s channeling the spirits of her subjects to show us, for a moment, their unique perspective on her chosen topic.
The evening begins with a discussion of the phrase, “Let me down easy.” Author and professor James H. Cone presents his ideas on the religious idea behind the phrase. Soon after, choreographer Elizabeth Streb, cyclist Lance Armstrong, and sports columnist Sally Jenkins follow up, one after another, with a discussion of athletes and athletics and the concept in our country that athletes should be immortal and impenetrable.
Smith’s focus soon shifts to a discussion of healthcare. Why, she asks, are we so afraid to talk about dying in our society? Do we really think we’ll live forever? And when treatment options for certain medical predicaments begin to dwindle, why are we so afraid of losing hope that we’ll fly in the face of reality and avoid informing a patient as to what his or her future may look like, even if the outcome seems bleak?
In the vein of Michael Moore’s documentary Sicko, several sad stories about the healthcare system in our country follow, from patients Hazel Merritt and Ruth Katz, as well as from Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, a physician at the Charity Hospital in New Orleans, whose confidence in her government was broken after experiencing the slow response to Hurricane Katrina.
Other professionals, including physicians, musicologists, teachers, and movie critic Joel Siegel, weigh in on the situation of patient care in our fast-and-furious cure-all times, and Smith smartly chooses to allow the evening to unfold without much of a guiding hand to guide us in a set direction. The stories overlap at times, perhaps guided by Smith’s choice of questions at each interview, but a sort of tapestry of stories is woven along the way that refuses to be limited by any restrictive structure.
At first, there’s an element of detachment caused by Ms. Smith’s tendency toward mimicry, particularly as she inhabits familiar figures like Eve Ensler and Lance Armstrong, but an audience soon adjusts to her particular performance style and revels in her virtuosity as a performer.
As each new character arrives, Smith’s stage manager Bethany Russell brings her a new prop or piece of costume, which Smith uses and then discards amongst Riccardo Hernandez’s furnished living room space. The space is surrounded by five mirrors, which reflect Smith from all angles, also allowing – during certain segments – for her image to be enlarged and projected thanks to the designs of Zak Borovay.
By the end of the evening, with Smith embodying – as her final portrait – a Buddhist monk named Matthieu Ricard – the stage is strewn with the remnants of her characters’ stories, hung over the arms of chairs or left in the form of trays of food on a table. As directed by Leonard Foglia, the evening is a beautiful accumulation of stories, leaving an audience with plenty of difficult, complicated, and ultimately unanswerable questions to ponder, springing from some of the most difficult subjects we ask ourselves about life and death but presented in a manner to which audiences can easily relate.