In Anna Deavere Smith's celebrated solo pieces, the writer-actress has focused her astute eye, uncanny ear and open heart on an event giving her works a strong narrative structure in which to present stunning re-created interviews that build to create a finely defined mosaic of a significant moment in time.
In Anna Deavere Smith’s celebrated solo pieces, the writer-actress has focused her astute eye, uncanny ear and open heart on an event — the 1992 L.A. riots, the race riots in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in 1991 — giving her works a strong narrative structure in which to present stunning re-created interviews that build to create a finely defined mosaic of a significant moment in time. In her first solo work in seven years, “Let Me Down Easy,” world preeming at Long Wharf, Smith takes on not a singular cataclysmic incident but rather a theme — the resiliency of the human body and how we deal with matters of the flesh and spirit, from old world healers to new world wunderdocs — and much, too much, more.While the gifted artist has lost none of her ability to embrace the essence of her interviewees, this piece of holistic theater seems less anchored and tends to drift, lacking the profound connections and accumulated power of her signature pieces. But the artist is resilient herself, and further surgical work could rehab the play-patient’s body as she further tends its soul. Much of the work’s first act deals with the human body’s ability to endure hardship, mostly self-imposed. Smith talks to a dancer, choreographer, rodeo rider, supermodel, sex activists, sports writer and several athletes, all discussing at length the amazing feats the body accomplishes and their need to impose a Herculean will to make those feats happen. (Included is a late-breaking interview with sports columnist Sally Jenkins about the reaction to Marion Jones’ sentence and the world of steroids.) While interesting, diverting and certainly idiosyncratic in speech and style, these pieces could easily be part of a Discovery Channel series. But toward the end of the act, Smith goes global. She embarks on a different kind of journey as she explore matters of the assaulted body and spirit in natural and man-made disasters in places such as Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Suddenly we’re in the world of power and politics, and while these interviews are never less than fascinating, they seem to be turning into separate shows, perhaps the result of dramaturgical overambition spurred by Smith’s own team of researchers. Several pieces are simply excerpts of lectures — or their equivalent — on the policies of war, race, media and the health care system. Still, many of the pieces are amusing, touching or intriguing: choreographer Elizabeth Streb’s description of her work-till-they-drop, self-eliminating auditions; Lance Armstrong’s cool, calculating tales of resolve; boxer Michael Bentt’s mindset not to be taken down by a white contender from New Jersey; the glories of the vagina by writer Eve Ensler (who explored women’s physical self-image in her own solo piece “The Good Body”). Most riveting are the personal health care tales that give the show its heart. Former Gov. Ann Richards’ positive-thinking philosophy in the midst of her cancer treatments shows her famous indomitable spirit and humor, while film critic Joel Siegel shows a dying patient’s private face of anger and despair. A hospital administrator finds herself the victim of her own medical bureaucracy. One mother recounts the horror of taking her blood-soaked daughter home after a procedure goes awry. Another finds faith in seeing her child suffer, endure and survive. All seek dignity, compassion and humanity in this final journey, and Smith gives them that comfort. On the tech side, David Rockwell’s set is overly fussy: a sleek wood platform astride a mound of debris and backed with a tapestry of rust-colored, corrugated materials that serve as a backdrop to Jan Hartley’s projections. Helmer Stephen Wadsworth guides Smith with delicacy and keeps things moving at a fluid pace — efficiently aided by a team of tightly choreographed stagehands.