Twenty voices culled from three hundred interviews over three continents, all brought to life by one woman.
Baltimore native, MacArthur Award recipient, and something of a brilliant medium – Anna Deavere Smith has launched the national tour of Second Stage’s production Let Me Down Easy. Playing now through February 13 at Arena Stage, it’s a powerful exploration of the difficulties American culture has with death and disease, how we define strength, and the current inequality of our healthcare system. Its power doesn’t come from a slap, however. As a friend who came with me to press night aptly commented, “sometimes a gentle nudge to wake you up is more appreciated than a harsh shake.”
That doesn’t mean the piece doesn’t pack a punch. Embodying twenty individuals whose words are directly taken from their interviews, Smith weaves both the sadness and the hilarity of the human condition into a tone poem on what it means to face the end of life. From Eve Ensler’s uproarious theory of “who’s in their vagina?” to Joel Siegel’s dropping his clown mask as he faces cancer, it’s an experience of fascinating observations and appalling truths. Smith doesn’t hit the audience over the head with strident political activism or calls to action – it’s simply the stories that weave the message, and it’s for you to hear and be affected as you will. I find that to be very brave, and left with a feeling of being both uplifted and released at the same time.
Let me down easy? Yes. That’s how I’d like to go.
There isn’t a solution presented to any of the health care and terminal illness dilemmas presented here. That didn’t bother me, however, so riveting were the stories coming to life. It’s a gifted artist holding up a mirror to her times – on a stage dominated by three mirrors that cleverly reflect back her image and ours. The twenty people whose voices she perfectly mimics are a varied lot – theologians, athletes, artists, cancer patients, doctors – all have their own take on what it means to face life and the inevitable decline of the body.
It’s hard to highlight or give justice to the many voices Smith shape-shifts through. This was my first time seeing her perform, and after the initial novelty of seeing her ably transform her mannerisms everything began to flow like watching a seance. I was personally affected most by her nailing the nonchalant masculinity and innate mental strength of rodeo bull rider Brent Williams, whose descriptions of his truly shocking injuries was contrasted with his need to keep riding. His was a startling evocation of the human spirit to survive. Another far more famous athlete seemed less personally compelling – witness Lance Armstrong’s rather chillingly normal chat about taking on cancer like he took on the Tour de France with his “team.” There’s feeling of unease continuing through the piece, as the disparity between how the privileged are treated when sick and how the poor are left to fend for themselves, becomes ever more apparent.
That theme is stated conclusively by several of the medical professionals interviewed – such as Ruth Katz, dean of the Yale School of Medicine and a cancer patient herself, and Phil Pizzo, dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine with his practical take on why end-of-life treatment gets short shrift – simply because “it takes more time.” Its most powerful moment comes with Kiersta Kurtz-Burke’s description of her experience caring for patients left behind at Charity Hospital in New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina ravaged the area. No more damning evidence for the healthcare divide between rich and poor needs be said. Until Smith impersonates Trudy Howell, director of Chance Orphanage in South Africa, and we hear the story of young orphans dying with AIDS. Nothing else can be said.
Despite these hard-hitting themes of death, bravery and cowardice, there are moments of true humor – I mentioned Eve Ensler earlier, and her theory of American issues with aging and the idea of female empowerment was a riot, and very true. There’s a ridiculously funny bit by dancer Elizabeth Streb about actually putting herself on fire for love. Smith got Lauren Hutton’s kookiness down so pat I almost saw the famous gap in her teeth. And former Texas governor Ann Richards provides a much needed comic riff on being old and sick.
It’s a riveting night that will make you think hard afterwards about your own fears, of how you would face disease and death. A downer? No. Very simply, just their voices, and the truth as they see it.