Let Me Down Easy

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Editorial Review

Theater review: Anna Deavere Smith's 'Let Me Down Easy'

By Peter Marks
Sunday, January 9, 2011

The noted medical authority Lauren Hutton materializes at the midpoint of "Let Me Down Easy," Anna Deavere Smith's engaging if oddly scattershot evening of impersonations tied together by the topics of health care and terminal illness.

Her profession helpfully identified as "supermodel" on an overhead projection in Arena Stage's newly renovated Kreeger Theater, Hutton expounds on her views of what doctors do. "It's a, it's a suspicious thing," Smith quotes her as saying. "It's a, it's like black magic. It's a suspicion. It's a, it's mojo. It's mojo. And it scares me, and I don't scare easily."

As theatergoers well know, Smith is a devastating mimic, and her impression of Hutton is up to her remarkable standard: The actress pulls back her upper lip in a way that instantly conjures Hutton's trademark gaptoothed grin. It's telling and it's funny. But you're left to wonder what contribution Hutton is making in a piece that purports to examine some of the most complex policy and moral issues of our time.

Yes, yes, celebrities are citizens, too, and you do need some daft moments to offset the more sober reflections of ministers, physicians and other ethical thinkers who fill out the gallery of personalities in "Let Me Down Easy." Still, the inclusion of the voices of Hutton and Lance Armstrong and Eve Ensler - along with some professional caregivers who offer rather predictable perspectives - suggests that, for illuminating this vast, unwieldy topic, Smith's journalistically catchall approach is not ideal.

Unlike some of her previous solo shows, such as the blistering "Twilight: Los Angeles," about the '92 riots, and "Fires in the Mirror," which deconstructed race relations in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, "Let Me Down Easy" unfolds as a noun looking for a verb: There's no provocative core to this performance piece; Smith is unable to bind the numerous interviews she's conducted into a freshly enlightening volume.

You get the sense, for example, that a conversation with actor and former heavyweight boxer Michael Bentt about his injuries is inserted for no particularly compelling reason other than that Smith scored the interview. (It's a problem that can also confront traditional reporters, when putting together a story with a lot of famous sources.)

That's not to say that the production, directed by Leonard Foglia, is without its pleasures. Smith is so accomplished at shape-shifting that you can admire what she attempts here from a purely technical angle. The physical detail she can weave into a snapshot impression remains immensely satisfying, whether as Armstrong she's ministering to an itch in a fairly private place, or summoning an aged relative recalling a hilarious final encounter with a dying sister.

The isolated parts of "Let Me Down Easy," though, are better than the whole, which never coalesces around anything more specific than our communal groping for a better way to treat both the psyche and body as death looms. Smith embodies oncologists and medical school deans and the relatives of cancer patients to chronicle some of the failings of the health-care system, but the net is too wide to glean a discernible thesis. As a result, the work - staged on a sparely furnished, mirrored set, with Smith adding lab coats and other bits of costume to her white blouse and dark pinstriped slacks - is best when it is addressing the big questions by simply and directly laughing at death.

Of special poignancy is a sequence in which she inhabits the body of TV film critic Joel Siegel, lying on a couch and dying of cancer. In exaggerated close-up, a camera perched above projects Smith's bespectacled face onto one of the mirrors, and we watch Smith's Siegel apply his exuberant intelligence to his condition. He tells some examples of a category of joke that he calls "old man don't have long to live." One of them, he says, was a favorite of George Burns:

"He was playing Las Vegas, and he's in his 90s. There's a knock on the door. It's this gorgeous chorus girl who says to him, 'I've come to offer you super sex.' George Burns says, 'I'll take the soup.' "

The range and caliber of Smith's technique take a back seat at moments like this to the courage and humor of her subjects. They are the interludes of "Let Me Down Easy" that feel most ardently alive. If perhaps this gifted storyteller had narrowed her focus a bit, her humane exploration would go down more coherently, too.

Let Me Down Easy Written and performed by Anna Deavere Smith. Directed by Leonard Foglia. Set, Riccardo Hernandez; costumes, Ann Hould-Ward; lighting, Dan Ozminkowski, based on original design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer; sound, Ryan Rumery; projections, Zachary Borovay; original musical elements, Joshua Redman; dialect coach, Amy Stoller. About 1 hour 40 minutes.

Anna Deavere Smith on life, death and language

By Leslie Tamura
Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Anna Deavere Smith - Baltimore native, award-winning playwright, professor, author and self-described clown - has listened to 320 people on three continents tell their stories of health-care crises, of managing cancer treatments, of receiving inept care, of trying to rescue others and of realizing they were going to die. Smith began these conversations in the late 1990s at the request of Yale University's medical school and has turned them into a one-woman show, "Let Me Down Easy," which begins its national tour this week at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater.

Smith has won renown for her roles in movies, on stage and on television, including as the tough national security adviser on "The West Wing" and currently as the ER administrator on "Nurse Jackie." But it is her documentary-like one-person productions that have earned her the most acclaim. Re-creating conversations verbatim in these plays, Smith has received Pulitzer Prize and Tony nominations and an Obie Drama Desk Award. In "Let Me Down Easy," she becomes Lance Armstrong, a former Yale medical school administrator, theater reviewer Joel Siegel (who died of colon cancer) and a Texas rodeo bull rider telling their stories of how the American health-care system works. Smith recently discussed the show, health care, her mother's death and why she has kept her distance from Baltimore.

- Leslie Tamura

How did this project get started?

The Yale School of Medicine wrote me a letter inviting me to interview doctors and patients, and present a performance at medical grand rounds - which is usually about science. They were trying to improve [patient-doctor] relationships in an era when many, many things took doctors away from the very thing they came to medicine for: to take care of the patient. It took me a couple years to decide to do it, because I was intimidated by the whole idea of presuming I had anything to offer doctors. I'm a clown, an actor: What do I know about science?

I think I was very ambivalent about being around illness and being around the possibility of death. A lot of things hadn't happened in my life yet - my mother was still alive, friends had not died - and in the course of that time, my mother has died, people close to me have died. So I'm kind of glad that I did decide to embark on the project, because it gave me a lot of ways of understanding the inevitability that we are vulnerable and that the rumor is true: We're going to die.

How did you pick the characters in this play?

My process is that I interview people, and after I do a lot of that work, I look through and decide on which of these people I would like to perform in the play . . . and actually performing people before I make the decision. That's a lot of labor that never sees the light of day.

The overall project has been about the vulnerability of the body, resilience of the spirit and the price of care. So I was looking at the human side of the story - which is unfolding politically - about how people have confronted the challenges that they have, that we all have. The heroes of the play are those who really put themselves out to take care of the most vulnerable people and understand what it means to be vulnerable - because of disease, because you're poor, because you're the wrong color.

If [the play] promotes anything, it promotes human kindness. The bottom line is, let's figure out a way to take care of each other.

Were you interested in health care before?

No, no. I think there was something about me that honestly I was nervous about being around sick people. Why? Because it reminds you that you could be sick, that you're going to die. But when I did a whole lot of interviews for something they commissioned me to do, I would literally get high from just talking to one person after another because of how much they knew.

How has this project influenced your opinions of health care?

When my mother was dying of kidney failure in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins Hospital, I was glad to have been working on this project.

Even though I've been around the world and I've taught [drama] at Stanford for 10 years, I'm a [performance studies] professor at NYU - I have distinctions that would have made me think I have a certain amount of confidence - but in the face of those rude doctors, that all went away.

I may as well have been the same girl who left Baltimore when I was 16 to go to college. Actually, I'll go further: I may as well have been that same, unsure Negro girl in the face of those arrogant white doctors at Hopkins than the person who has made her own way.

And I was shocked at that, that I could be intimidated by that.

So it helped me to frankly knock them down a few notches and to have a sense of the dignity of my mother's struggle and my dignity as someone who cared about her.

I am lucky: I have fantastic doctors and a fantastic dentist. But if I have to go to a new doctor and someone in their office is rude and half-awake and slovenly, at least inside I know that's not acceptable. I don't say anything, but [working on this play] helps me in a vulnerable moment.

But it's not just the responsibility of the doctor?

We would like doctors to listen, but the fact is, we better be ready to be able to talk to them. You're going to have to be an active participant in that conversation, so I'd say the American people are going to need ways of stepping up to the conversation. So when I talk about the caring doctor, the listening doctor, the doctor who touches, I'm not expecting that, but I do think that . . . there's a different kind of engagement that will be required, and [the younger] generation will certainly be more prepared to engage that way. You can't just show up on the gurney and expect people to take care of you.

What's your advice to future health-care professionals thinking about getting into this field?

I have a lot of optimism about new doctors because I think it's really clear that it's a lot of hard work and no guarantee of a lot of money. I don't think people cavalierly are going into medicine right now. I don't know the statistics, but I bet you a different crop of people are coming to medical school than would have gone 30 years ago.

What characters resonate with you personally?

The notion that I can identify with a character, and therefore can be them, is a spiritual dead end. I don't believe that I'm inside of Hamlet and therefore I'm Hamlet. Each of the people in this play have something to say that they would go to the mountaintop and scream, and I just happened to be there and heard it.

You're from Baltimore; what's it like to come home?

I made a real specific decision when I came out of school and most artists were writing about home - if you were a woman, you were writing about being a woman - and I decided not to do that, write about what you know. That's not what I do. I went as far away from home as possible in terms of the development of my imagination. [For example, one character in the play is a rodeo cowboy, and] if there's anybody who is like so far from Baltimore, it's a Republican, right-wing, white, rodeo bull rider. And maybe because I found him, and because I love him and we still talk on the phone, and because I get to play him every night, I think I am now ready to go home and to get a handle on Baltimore and to do something there. I wouldn't be shocked if, after being on the road in search of America for almost 30 years, my next project doesn't ultimately take me home.

But to the people of Baltimore, to learn more about the people my mother was teaching . . . . She taught really, really, really, poor kids in areas of Baltimore I was not allowed to go to unless I was taken. And she would bring boys home who were 13 and who couldn't read in sixth grade. She would sit them down at the dining room table and insist that they were not going to leave sixth grade without reading. So that is also home, to go back and look at what is going on there and to learn more about it.

After Sunday matinee performances, Smith hosts discussions open to the public at no charge. Guest speakers, including people who are portrayed in the show, will talk about the issues raised by the play. To reserve a spot, call Arena Stage.