Anna Deveare Smith as one of many characters she portrays
in “Let Me Down Easy”
Photo by Joan Marcus
‘Let Me Down Easy’
Conceived, written and performed by Anna Deveare Smith
Directed by Leonard Foglia
Berkeley Repertory Theatre (see video clip below)
In association with the Arena Stage
May 28-July 10 and Aug. 11-Sept. 4, 2011
You may know her as the hard-ass hospital administrator on “Nurse Jackie” or recall her stint as a member of Martin Sheen’s defense team on “The West Wing.” Others may think of her as a one-time visiting professor at Yale Medical School, a current professor at New York University, member of a prestigious think tank, MacArthur Genius Award recipient and writer/performer of some of the most amazing documentary/monologues ever to grace a stage. Anna Deveare Smith is a phenomenon, and then some. Her latest show, “Let Me Down Easy,” an examination of death and dying in light of our current health-care situation, is powerful, funny, moving and pretty unforgettable.
Smith does not so much portray her characters as inhabit them, body, gesture and voice. The dialogue (actually monologue) is verbatim, gleaned and painstakingly edited from hours of face-to-face interviews. Some are with famous people (supermodel Lauren Hutton; former Texas governor, the late Ann Richards; and champion cyclist Lance Armstrong). Others may be lesser known, except in their fields of medicine, theology or the arts. We get a former heavyweight boxing champion and a musicologist who talks about Schubert. Sports columnist Sally Jenkins has a stint on what drives athletes to risk their lives on the field, and a rodeo rider gives us a closeup of what that actually means. Segments about risking our lives and facing death are interspersed with examinations of our relationships with our bodies. Eve Ensler, outspoken author of “The Vagina Monologues,” talks about anorexia and body image as a way of controlling women: “You can’t think much if you’re eating a raisin a day,” she notes. Hutton, who preens as she obviously comes from a different place, gloats on the success that affords her the best health care around.
A lot of this is laced with humor, but other interviews, Susan Youens, the Schubert expert; a woman with renal failure who refuses dialysis because of her daughter’s ghastly experience; and, most moving of all, the director of an orphanage in South Africa who embodies the show’s title as she watches—and helps—childhood victims of the continent’s AIDS pandemic let go of life, can break your heart. There are doctors too, who talk about what is wrong with our country’s health-care system and the best way to handle end-of-life issues with terminal patients. Although it sounds didactic, it’s surprisingly entertaining, even when it’s sad.
Smith, by donning a blazer or a cowboy hat or spectacles (costumes by Ann Hould-Ward), changes gears seamlessly from one character to another. Young, old, male, female, black, white, an evangelist preacher, a Jewish film critic and a Buddhist monk: she becomes them all. Never leaving the stage for the hour-and-40-minute show, once she does at the end you wish she would come back and give you some more. We can only hope that this distinguished author and performer of “Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles” will do just that. She is more than a fantastic performer. She is our social conscience, and it is both a pleasure and a privilege to listen to her.