A night in the company of Anna Deavere Smith is enough to make you worry. Quite a lot, actually.
There’s the tempestuous state of America’s health care system, although the characters in Smith’s latest work “Let me Down Easy” don’t really ever address that boondoggle directly. They/we have enough insomnia inducements already. Mortality, for a start. Not a lot of yuks to think about how we might shuffle off this mortal coil.
Or if looking within is too personal, we can instead stew about sick or dying men, women, children, their caregivers and mourners. Smith brings out our very deep and human concerns for people who have been sick, and for those who have passed away. Thanks to Smith’s performance, culled from hundreds of interviews, we do not have to worry that these people will ever be forgotten.
And, let’s face it, from a purely theatrical point of view, you can even leave the 100 minute masterpiece that is “Let me Down Easy” with the fear – quite real – that Anna Deavere Smith might hang up her tape recorder and never create another piece like this again. Solo shows are by no means unique; Smith’s skill is another matter.
In “Let me Down Easy,” first performed at Second Stage and subsequently at Arena Stage and on tour, Smith gives us death and life. From more than 300 interviews on three continents, the author/performer of “Twilight: Los Angeles” and “Fires in the Mirror” gives us doctors, performance artists, politicians and supermodels. Celebrities, too. Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong is there as is the late Texas Governor Ann Richards and the late ABC film critic Joel Siegel.
Their interviews – transcribed by Smith, one very much suspects, verbatim – cover topics of health, self-image, mortality and that great bugaboo, bureaucracy. Some of the words Smith has them saying may surprise you. Others won’t. Others can’t help but make you laugh, often in a gallows-worthy way.
Smith is an actor, not a caricaturist. With “Let me Down Easy, she is giving 5-7 minute snippets of 20 people, of all ages and races, split nearly evenly between men and women. A stage hand brings on an article of clothing (designed by Ann Hould-Ward) or a prop to help the never resting Smith shed one skin and don another. By the end of the intermission-less performance, the Broad Stage – decorated by Ricardo Hernandez with a functional table and couch and a bank of mirrors – is littered with vestiges of Smith’s characters. With a meal here, a set of boxing gloves there, it’s as though a character, once her turn is over, has remained on stage to meet the next person. The alterations and accents help, but really Smith is such a crack observer of speech, carriage and mannerisms, that we’re not really looking at outer trappings.
Some of Smith’s people are excerpted from interviews (they repeat Smith’s question back before answering) while others appear to have been caught mid sermon or mid monologue. In the opening speech, James H. Cone, a professor at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City , gives Smith’s piece its title. With a preacher’s cadence, Cone talks of wanting to “shape the concept” of death. Next up, choreographer Elizabeth Streb discusses setting herself on fire and nearly ruining a party.
Armstrong, his cancer many years in the past, is nonetheless cagey as well as seemingly laid back, a person who – if he is to be believed – fears failure more than his mortality. Or consider the Idaho rodeo rider Brent Williams, who, in his monolog “Toughness,” talks about being stomped by a bull, operating on half a kidney and claims “basically, I’m an optimist.”
The outrage-inspiring depictions of young children being wiped out in New Orleans (“Heavy Sense of Resignation”) and South Africa (“Don’t Leave them in the Dark”) are gut-wrenching in a too real way; the physician and orphanage director (respectively) have so bloody much resignation.
Via Leonard Foglia’s direction, Smith intersperses her pieces expertly. The hopeful, the bitter, the doomed and the calloused stand by side in all their human glory or vanity. “Let me Down Easy” does no such thing. Here’s hoping Anna Deavere Smith remains forever as tough as her subjects .
“Let me Down Easy” continues 7:30pm tonight-Sat., 2 p.m. Sat.-Sun.; through Sunday at the Broad Stage 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. $32-$75. (310) 434-3200, www.theBroadStage.com.