Anna Deavere Smith glides in and out of personas with the ease of just-cut hair slipping to the barber’s floor. Her quicksilver qualities and keen listening skills are beautifully utilized in the one-woman show Let Me Down Easy, a meditation on the body—how we push it, honor it, dismiss it, and prepare it for death.
Miss Smith conducted more than 300 interviews from South Africa to Hollywood for the piece, which combines journalism and theater to comment on our current health care system, the way people treat their bodies when both healthy and diseased, and how Americans view terminal illness and the end of life.
Her masterful effortlessness with accents and body postures are deceptively entertaining, and you marvel at her skill as a natural-born clown and storyteller as she launches into amusing stories about daredevil choreographers accidentally on-purpose setting themselves on fire or solo artist Eve Ensler (of The Vagina Monologues fame) riffing bawdily on women like Tina Turner who are in full command of their juiciness and sexiness. Even insubstantial bits, like the one with supermodel Lauren Hutton breezily chattering about how fame and privilege opened doors to the best doctors in New York, have a certain charm.
Yet there is meaning beyond the mimicry, especially when Miss Smith ventures into the topics of serious illness and death. She captures the spraddle-legged, antsy physicality of a top athlete in cyclist Lance Armstrong, whose motivation for winning races and beating cancer is the same—“fear of failure.” Failure, in the case of cancer, would be to succumb to the illness and die—none of that nonsense for a fierce competitor like Mr. Armstrong. She equally nails the bravura of other top athletes, heavyweight champion Michael Bentt and rodeo champion Brent Williams, who both describe their brutal injuries as if running down a “honey do” list.
The first part of Let Me Down Easy is devoted to people who put their bodies to extremes—dancers, athletes, actors. Their bodies are instruments, to be honed and tested and displayed to an admiring public. That is, as Washington Post sports reporter Sally Jenkins points out, the public is adoring until the athlete or icon has the audacity to grow old.
The second part is more heartfelt than exhilarating, as Miss Smith presents portraits of people whose bodies are put to extremes in different ways—honed by sickness, tested and prodded by medical professionals, displayed in hospital rooms in a health care system that often sees patients as decaying meat or an expensive inconvenience.
Tales of bravado and spirit abound here as well. Former Texas governor Ann Richards sparkles with gumption and graciousness even as she struggles with her chemotherapy treatment for cancer—she refuses to buy into the “sickness lifestyle” and manages people who sap her precious strength by quipping “I can’t talk to you now. You’re using up by chi.” Another indelible soul (who like Miss Richards, lost the cancer battle) is film critic Joel Siegel, who maintains his love of schtick and mordant Jewish sensibilities to the end.
Less extroverted and quietly affecting vignettes include a director of an orphanage in South Africa who calmly and squarely prepares for death the children in her charge suffering from AIDS and Miss Smith’s elderly aunt, who recounts stories of her dying sister’s earthy final words and the memory of her mother’s simple gesture of warming her children’s hands beneath her arms with equal warmth and wistfulness.
Perhaps the evening’s most gripping piece centers on a doctor at a charity hospital in New Orleans, who learns a harsh lesson about class, race and the crushing realities of poverty during Hurricane Katrina.
By the time Miss Smith ends the show with arms outstretched and an exultant “Finished!” the stage is littered with props and costumes. And our hearts are full.
Let Me Down Easy
Conceived, written and performed by Anna Deavere Smith
Directed by Leonard Foglia
Produced by Arena Stage
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
- Jacques A Benovil . Washington Informer
- Martha Kepner . WomanAroundTown
- Alan Zilberman . BacklashReview
- Martha Wade Steketee . UrbanExcavations
Patrick Folliard . Washington Blade
- Katie Collins . Catholic Herald
Tom Ramstack . City’s Best
- Tim Smith . Baltimore Sun
- Gary Tischler . The Georgetowner
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
- Edith Billups . Washington Times
- Chris Klimek . Washington City Paper
Tom Avila . Metro Weekly
Jacques A. Benovil . Washington Informer
- Jenn Larson . WeLoveDC
Susan Davidson . CurtainUp
- Peter Marks . Washington Post