Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
May 6, 2011
It’s a matter of Life and Death. Anna Deavere Smith, acclaimed actor, writer, scholar, and winner of a MacArthur “Genius” grant, has a lot on her mind: illness, medical care, the body, the soul and how we face the end of it all.
She spent eight years conducting more than 300 interviews, distilling them down to 20 characters, who inhabit the distinctive world of “Let Me Down Easy,” her latest solo documentary theater piece. It’s Smith who does the inhabiting, re-creating each of her subjects with astonishing detail and specificity, capturing accents, dialects, verbal and physical quirks, to present the many sides of a complex topic.
She’s a riveting performer. But the issue here is too Hydra-headed, too expansive in its scope. Promoted as an exploration of the American health care system, the piece is really much more – and somewhat less. It touches on doctor-patient relationships and frustrations, as well as spirituality, mortality, and coping with ongoing illness and impending death. It doesn’t have the sharp, laser focus or the emotional intensity of her prior pieces, “Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles , 1992,” which examined racial conflict in Brooklyn and L.A.
“Let Me Down Easy” was developed at Yale University Medical School , and perhaps that accounts for the strong whiff of the intellectual and academic. There’s also a considerable slant toward celebrity; Smith’s subjects include supermodel Lauren Hutton, cycling champion Lance Armstrong, former Texas governor Ann Richards, movie critic Joel Siegel and playwright/activist Eve Ensler . Not all offer searing perceptions, nor do they all come off in a flattering light. With minimal prop or costume additions, they’re joined onstage by physicians, professors, researchers and clergymen.
But where are the poor? Or even the middle class? These are all privileged people, talking about the issues from on high. A more varied group would surely have provided additional layers, depth and insights.
The two most powerful and gut-wrenching segments, by far, come from the director of a South African orphanage and a doctor at Charity Hospital in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, who tries to calm her charges, all the while knowing that, because they’re poor, these patients will be ignored and neglected by their government and potential rescuers.
The touring production, which originated at New York ’s Second Stage Theatre, is extremely well done: tautly directed, simply but provocatively designed, with mirrored panels that can project or reflect. In the final, forceful moment, a Buddhist monk pours water into his hand, a potent image of time – and life – slipping through our fingers.
In this unique collaboration of three companies — the San Diego Rep, La Jolla Playhouse and Vantage Theatre – the production may be too long, the reach too broad. But the performance is superb.
“Let Me Down Easy” runs through May 15, at the San Diego Repertory Theatre in Horton Plaza .
©2011 PAT LAUNER