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A CurtainUp Review
Let Me Down Easy
By Elyse Sommer
Anna Deavere Smith has created a specialty within this genre — the docudrama or verbatim play, in which she takes interviews she's conducted and then channels her subjects to present their words. The resulting group portraits have a uniquely authentic, multi-faceted authorial voice.
Though she's been busy with television (Nurse Jackie, West Wing) and film work (Rachel Getting Married, The American President), as well as her work as a professor of performance studies at New York University, she's also been working on Let Me Down Easy. As usual, this is a provocatively timely piece that makes full use of her incredible ability to use her charismatic personality even as she turns herself into the people whose stories she's telling.
Let Me Down Easy began as a commission by the Yale School of Medicine to interview staff members and patients and to be performed at the school during medical grand rounds. Smith recognized this assignment's potential for a broader audience. This resulted in Let Me Down Easy, a still evolving production of which was staged at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven and A. R.T. in Boston last year. With the health care reform bill now one of the current administration's hot button issues, the New York production at Second Stage has become more tightly focused so that The Healthcare Monologues would be an apt alternative title (in fact, that's the title used for Susan Domingo's articlein the October 4th NYTimes Magazine about Smith and Let Me Down Easy). The timeliness and excellence of Smith's script and presentation, as well as Leonard Foglia's simple yet slick staging, make this the best of her "verbatim plays" I've seen.
Smith is barefooted for the entire 90 minutes during which she metamorphoses into the personas of twenty people she's interviewed. (some, but not all, well known). The only additions to her basic outfit of white shirt and black pants are a few clothing props brought out by a stagehand.
The set (by Ricardo Hernandez) is, like the performance, deceptively simple: a couch, a few chairs and a table to help Smith move naturally and with fluidity from one tape recorded character to another. Four large upstage mirrors add a measure of theatricality. Each scene has a title which is projected onto an unobtrusive overhead screen along with a line about the character being channeled by Smith.
The overall title is discussed by the first speaker, author and New York's Union Theological Seninary professor James H. Cone, who ponders that those words evoke broken hearts, love and could also be about death. Cone's last evocation sets the theme: dealing with illness and, in the case of the worst case scenario, dealing with death and dying which is after all what the health care debate is all about.
Of course, Smith is too smart not to realize that timely or not, illness and death aren't exactly what people associate with a night out at the theater and she's thus managed to balance the serious scenes with light and peppy ones. Thus she follows the contemplative opening with an amusing segment called "Fire Dance," in which choreographer Elizabeth Streb describes a literally incindiary performance.
Never satisfied until she's explored all aspects of a subject, Smith takes on variations of the death theme; for example, there's her interview with Tour De France victor and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong who in "Right On Time" explains his amazing fight to persevere against all odds by talking about the death-before-death experienced by athletes forced by illness or injury to retire from the activity that defines them. Rounding out Armstrong's story, is heavy weight champion boxer Michael Bentt's "When Boxers See Lights" and Rodeo Bull Rider Brent Williams' "Toughness" which addresses the issue of a patients taking charge of their well being for maximum damage control (as Williams did when he fought not to have both his kidneys removed). Kidney failure and its treatment is also addressed in "A Sheet Around My Daughter," a less bravado and more wrenchingly painful story in which Yale New Haven hosptial patient Hazel Merritt refuses dialysis treatment because a similar procedure went wrong and killed her daughter.
In "Mojo" and "That Bedrock of Care" the subject of the inequality of the health care system is pungently discussed by super model Lauren Hutton and Ruth Katz a hospital administrator: Hutton explains how because she was lucky enough to "change classes" and move from her working class background into a network where she has access to the best doctors; Katz, had to use her credentials to undo a potentially dangerous records mistake which she admits are made even in good hospitals. The issue of unequal health care also took Smith to New Orleans where she interviewed Kiersta Kurtz-Burke a dedicated young physician in a charity hospital who during the Katrina disaster became disullusioned by the mistreatment of a young girl and how she and her patients were abandoned by FEMA while the paying hospitals got their patients out.
As people approach the best years of their lives differently, so it goes with the way they deal with a diagnosis that augurs a shortened life span. One of the most theatrically powerful examples are musicologist Susan Youens' "PassingBells," an ode to Franz Shubert (subtly accompanied by a Shubert melody). It seems that Shubert, knowing he was faced with the third stage of syphillis, nevertheless composed 1000 works before his very early death. There's also film critic Joel Siegel with his Anna Deavere Smith-channeled image dramatically reflected in one of the upstage mirrors. Siegel is angry and full of fear which he covers with ironical reflections and a George Burns joke. Probably the most amusing of these terminally ill interviewees is former Texas governor Ann Richards, sticking to the blustery humor she was known for with: " have two choices when I get up: I can feel good — or I can feel bad."
Some of the pieces— like the one about Smith's own Aunt, a director of a South African orphanage and a Buddhist Monk — seem to be left over from the original Let me Down Easy. Still, the aunt is amusing, the orphanage administrator very touching and the Monk's piece makes for a visually appealing finale.
Let Me Down Easy offers no easy answers to good and widely availabl health care, nor does it make serious illness seem like a cakewalk. But miraculously, Anna Deveare Smith does make the subject of our mortality both absorbing and entertaining— and perhaps just a little easier to think and talk about.