Let Me Down Easy
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 2, 2009
Anna Deavere Smith's new solo performance, Let Me Down Easy, is literally about life and death. Principally it is about death: to make this show, she interviewed people who are/were suffering from fatal and/or life-threatening illness, such as Joel Siegel , Governor Ann Richards, and Lance Armstrong, as well as people whose job it is to minister to the dead and dying—the Reverend Peter Gomes of Memorial Church at Harvard University, for example. I suspect that as she was putting the materials together, she realized that the hot-button issue of health care could easily be wrapped into the piece, and so in the center of Let Me Down Easy Smith explores some of the sides of the debate that is currently galvanizing so many Americans.
Smith's bio, in the show program, tells us that "her theatre combines journalistic techniques and basic listening skills to create works that represent many points of view." True, as far as it goes, but do not for a moment believe that Smith is objectively reporting all sides: the material she has collected is molded to convey a very specific perspective on both the Big Philosophical Issue that frames this show and the Sensitive Political Issue that is at its core. Because I largely agree with her very compassionate, very humanistic, very individualistic point of view, Let Me Down Easy feels engaging and authentic to me. And because I applaud Smith's earnest intent to use the stage as a platform to bring about social and political change, I sincerely hope that the people who most urgently need to hear the stories she tells us here—I'm talking to you, Congressman, and to you, Senator—will somehow be reached and persuaded.
As directed by Leonard Foglia, the format of the show is similar to others in Smith's canon. On a simple set—designed by Riccardo Hernandez to serve as living room, restaurant, hospital, office, and any number of locales—Smith re-creates segments of 20 interviews she conducted over the past several years on the broad issues of health and dying. A young woman brings any necessary props and costume pieces onto the stage as the show progresses—a jacket and tie when Smith morphs into Gomes; a pair of boxing gloves and a jump rope to provide ambience for the scene featuring heavyweight champion Michael Bentt. Smith seamlessly shifts from one persona to the next, impersonating each of these characters with astonishing fidelity and rigor.
She's at her best portraying the people we don't know; this is partly due to the greater strength of this material. A physician at the Charity Hospital in New Orleans named Kiersta Kurtz-Burke has one of the more compelling tales to tell here, about the systematic negligence her nurses and patients and colleagues were forced to contend with during Hurricane Katrina. If you don't think there's a hierarchy of privilege and want in this country, just listen to Kiersta for as powerful a refutation of that notion as I've ever heard. Equally eloquent is Trudy Howell, who works in an orphanage in Johannesburg, South Africa, helping AIDS babies deal with their imminent deaths. Hers is a big strong unselfish heart that seems to work little miracles every day.
In contrast, Smith takes a broader tack with many of the celebrities on her itinerary. Lance Armstrong comes across as a self-involved, ignorant baboon, and supermodel Lauren Hutton, bragging about how expensive her doctors are, seems unbearably snobbish and doltish. Smith overdoes the mannerisms of well-known figures like Eve Ensler (how many times can you say the word "vagina" in five minutes?), and both the late Siegel and the late Governor Richards, though respectfully etched, are assigned gags that play on what we know about their personas. Smith is very skillful at what she does, but she's a manipulator of material, not merely a faithful reporter, and I have to admit that this sometimes makes me uncomfortable.
But all that said, the topics she's covering in Let Me Down Easy are of enormous import, and the wisdom she's found in such diverse sources as rodeo bull rider Brent Williams, Yale Medical School Dean Ruth Katz, and Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard is well worth imparting. See Let Me Down Easy to watch a pro at the top of her form and also to learn a whole lot about issues that affect you every minute of your life.