On a recent Tuesday evening, my wife Carolyn and I attended Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman show, Let Me Down Easy, which is currently playing at the Berkeley Rep theater. Let Me Down Easy is one in a series of self-conceived plays for which Smith—a performer well-known for her roles in popular dramas like The West Wing and, currently, Nurse Jackie—prepared by interviewing hundreds of people whose diverse views and experiences span an important topic. (In Let Me Down Easy, she explores the many aspects of health care in the United State.)
From this deluge of responses, Smith winnows out a relative handful of witnesses—then meticulously reenacts their personas, complete down to accents, inflections and personal tics. The resulting breadth of perspectives (in Let Me Down Easy, 20 often-familiar personalities weigh in) ensures the personally liberal actress-playwright presents an even-handed survey of this politically divisive topic.
Thus, in Let Me Down Easy, we hear what it’s like to endure the rigors of cancer treatment from a cocky, self-assured Lance Armstrong (who despite his brush with death displays little introspection; “I’m not ‘spiritual’ at all,” he confides with a laugh). Taking on the guise of former WBO heavyweight champion Michael Bentt, Smith gives us a glimpse of the uncertain cloud of mortality shadowing such pro athletes—and how a single a punch can trigger instant retirement. Former supermodel Lauren Hutten lets us in on the easy accessibility to state-of-the-art medical treatment enjoyed by celebrities and well-connected others. While late Texas governor Ann Richards, depicted by Smith as a sly southern wit, seems to grasp there on stage how most citizens’ rationed health coverage starkly contrasts with her own generous, multi-tiered medical support.
Down Easy takes a poignant turn when we’re introduced to Dr. Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, a physician at New Orleans’ now-shuttered Charity Hospital, whose staff and patients were stranded by floodwaters following Hurricane Katrina. Smith, in the guise of Kurtz-Burke describes the shock of experiencing firsthand the kind of casual neglect regularly suffered by poor blacks at the hands of callous authorities. With waters rising around them, patients—and the hospital’s predominantly African-American nurses—cautioned the formerly privileged white doctor against expecting rescue by emergency responders. She reverently describes her poor patients’ resigned dignity—contrasted with her own incredulous betrayal—in the face of such social abandonment.
But the play’s most wrenching moments come as Smith embodies personalities who’ve intimately witnessed others’ deaths, or who personally faced their own approaching demise. We hear, for example, from the director of a South African orphanage for AIDS-infected children. She relates how one 13-year-old came heartbreakingly to terms with her own impending death, and experienced the comforting presence of her deceased mother, poised to usher her into eternity. In another, surprisingly touching, portrayal Smith morphs into late film critic Joel Siegel. As Smith settles back onto a sofa, we see Siegel’s-nee-Smith’s visage projected on a screen. The critic is at first his familiar wisecracking self; then, suddenly abandoning his comic pretense, Siegel reveals a very different—and achingly human—side: alone and fearfully confronting a finale with which we all can relate.
Smith portrays these celebs and other, lesser-known personalities, with humor, intelligence, compassion and, particularly on the topic of death, heartbreaking humanity. By the play’s close, in fact, it seemed that Smith could easily have devoted an entire drama to exploring our common and divergent views on the latter subject. Despite this small reservation, however, I was often spellbound by Let Me Down Easy—and often oblivious to Smith’s sole presence on stage. (In her curtain call, the actress gestured symbolically around at the many props cast off during her performance, in acknowledgement of the 20 characters who “took their turns” on stage with her.)
I loved Anna Deavere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy. I found it a very comprehensive and revealing survey of the health care landscape today in the U.S. It’s a timely contribution to an important, ongoing national conversation.