Attempting a play that tackles the ever-thorny subject of health care in America seems like a Herculean task. On the one hand, it isn't the most entertaining of premises, unless you're planning a tongue-in-cheek musical with tap-dancing doctors, Woody Allen-style. On the other hand, how do you even begin to attempt to cover such a fractured, dissonant, and emotive topic?
The answer, of course, is with a fractured, dissonant, and emotive play, and it’s to actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith’s credit that she has managed to distill hundreds of voices and stories into 90 minutes of spellbinding theater with Let Me Down Easy, currently at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theatre. Out of more than 300 interviews Smith conducted while researching the play, 20 voices remain, ranging from the world-famous (cycling god Lance Armstrong) to the obscure (Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, a doctor at Charity Hospital in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina). The same genre of “documentary theater” that Smith used in her previous plays—the Tony Award-nominated Twilight: Los Angeles, and the Pulitzer Prize finalist Fires in the Mirror—is employed here: After doing all the reporting and research herself, Smith then embodies the characters onstage, reciting their own words verbatim.
It helps that Smith, a familiar face from her roles in The West Wing and Nurse Jackie, is an uncanny mimic. She jumps seemingly effortlessly from the drawling tones of rodeo cowboy Brent Williams to the rapid-fire recollections of choreographer Elizabeth Streb. Using only the simplest of props—a coffee cup, a striped blazer, a blanket—Smith shifts from character to character, altering her physicality, manner, and voice at the ding of a bell. Her accents, running the gamut from South African to Queens, are flawless. When she tackles Armstrong, you forget she was ever a woman and become absorbed in the obsessive drive of his character (“With disease, the fear around the motivation is failure,” Armstrong says), and she even manages to conjure up images of a gap-toothed Lauren Hutton, self-described as “your stereotypical ignorant patient.”
Health care, and the lack of it, is a serious issue, and Smith doesn’t shy away from provocation, or pathos. One segment, projected onto screens, depicts ABC film critic Joel Siegel, who died of colon cancer in 2007, discussing his illness. Another shows Trudy Howell, the director of an orphanage in South Africa, describing how she prepares her young AIDS sufferers for death. But amid the poignancy are moments of life-affirming humor, such as loudmouth feminist Eve Ensler discussing sexuality, or Streb recalling the time she set herself on fire.
Let Me Down Easy has been edited since it premiered in 2008, with transitions refined and certain characters cut altogether. While not every segment adds particular weight to the nuanced debate about life and death, each contributes a specific voice to the dialogue. Director Leonard Foglia (Broadway’s Thurgood, and Master Class) helps keep the action tight and the mood from becoming too jumpy. As Smith discards characters, she leaves props behind her, so by the end of the play the stage is littered with human detritus: a visual reminder of the empty possessions we leave behind. Smith offers no particular answers—hers isn’t one of the voices that jumps out of the melee. Instead, she shows deftly how, despite our vast differences, in the end we all end up exactly the same.
Let Me Down Easy is at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theatre through February 13. For tickets ($40 and up), go to arenastage.org.