Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Let Me Down Easy

Also see Susan's review of Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet

Washington may be the ideal venue for Anna Deavere Smith's latest one-woman work, Let Me Down Easy, which considers nothing less than life and death through a variety of personal stories about health and illness. In contrast to policy makers who speak in generalities about health care mandates, pre-existing conditions, and parameters of insurance coverage, Smith gets past the words and into the souls of the people she interviews as she performs on the stage of the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage.

Smith's genius is that she not only listens intently to the people she interviews, but succeeds brilliantly in incarnating each one with a minimum of external assistance (a jacket, a clip-on tie, a pair of glasses). Through her malleable posture and sharp ear for dialect and accent, she inhabits both men and women of all ages and races, from a French Buddhist monk to a rodeo rider from Idaho, and creates incisive portraits of such familiar figures as former Texas Governor Ann Richards; Joel Siegel, movie critic for ABC News; and Tour de France champion and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong.

The setting by Riccardo Hernandez is deliberately low-key: plain, off-white furnishings on a raised platform, surrounded in back by a semicircle of tall, slanted mirrors—giving the (thematically appropriate) impression of an operating theater. Smith wears a plain white tailored shirt and dark tailored pants, but she chooses to remain barefoot as she steps into each character.

Smith began work on Let Me Down Easy for a presentation at the Yale University School of Medicine in 2000, and continued to look deeper into the material in the years that followed. She describes the current production as an investigation of "grace"—meant not strictly in a religious sense, but what keeps people going despite setbacks and trauma.

Much of the controversy about available quality health care is what is, or should be, available to whom at what price. Smith addresses this issue from both sides: at the top, supermodel Lauren Hutton tells how her contract with Revlon gave her access to some of the world's best doctors; meanwhile, Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, a doctor at New Orleans' Charity Hospital, describes conditions following Hurricane Katrina and her realization that, to many of the patients, the sense of abandonment was nothing new. In between, a hospital administrator is forced to speak up when she becomes a patient; a mother recounts the disgust and horror she feels regarding the poor treatment of her daughter, a kidney dialysis patient; and the rodeo rider shares how, following an accident, he received top-shelf care at a military hospital for a remarkably low cost.

Let Me Down Easy began its life at New York's Second Stage Theatre. Following the Arena Stage run, Smith is taking her show on the road to cities including Philadelphia and San Diego.

Arena Stage
Let Me Down Easy
December 31st, 2010 —February 13th, 2011
Conceived, written, and performed by Anna Deavere Smith
Directed by Leonard Foglia
A production of Second Stage Theatre, New York, NY
Kreeger Theater, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, Sixth and Maine avenues SW
Washington, DC
Ticket Information: 202-488-3300 or

Photo: Joan Marcus

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