How do you stay alive? Anna Deavere Smith’s solo show “Let Me Down Easy” offers very specific answers to that question — and a lot of others about life and the body — from people as physically and socially diverse as Lance Armstrong and South African orphanage director Trudy Howell. While not easily classifiable, the punchy, 95-minute show is a totally vital piece of theater, mixing a standup comic’s instincts with a great reporter’s keen eye and delivered with a compassion that is all Smith’s own.
An incredible mimic, Smith has found plenty of strong personalities to channel, but she never resorts to caricature even when the temptation must have been overwhelming. Armstrong is a perfect example: He presents his personal philosophy as a magic cure-all available to anyone willing to make the effort. Smith captures the cyclist’s mean streak in a brief moment when he reflects that “there was a guy who was five times second in the Tour de France.” Armstrong (well, Smith) pauses. “Sucks to be him. But, I look at it as, uh, he didn’t make the sacrifices that I made.”
Even as Smith skewers Armstrong’s arrogance, she suggests it’s part of the indomitability he had to discover to rescue himself from cancer. Once you’ve tapped that reservoir of will, you can dip into it any old time, and you feel invincible.
Each vignette — there are 20 in all — is rich enough for an entire play, which is probably the point: Every person contains multitudes. Take Elizabeth Streb, a contemporary-dance choreographer-performer who finishes her anecdote about being literally on fire for her girlfriend’s birthday thusly: “I’d see complete strangers and I’d just think to myself” — and here Smith looks smugly out at the audience like she knows something we don’t — “‘Well, you know. I’ve been on fire. I was on fire.’ So. It’s that kind of thing.”
It’s not all laughs and back-patting, of course. Smith’s other subjects have had much closer calls and haven’t escaped unscathed. Worst and saddest of them is Hazel Merritt, patient at a hospital in Connecticut where the nurses’ neglect killed her daughter. Her story isn’t just heartrending, it’s a stern comment on Armstrong’s assertion that everyone gets what they deserve. “There is just not enough of the best of everything to go around,” says model-actress Lauren Hutton in the next segment.
Helmer Leonard Foglia and Smith have worked hard to stage the show so that each character being performed seems entirely distinct from the one before. Given her gifts, this would probably be possible with Smith standing on a blank stage facing outward the whole time, but it would look like a parlor trick. Here, precisely because the impressions are so good, we stop regarding them as impressions and simply pay attention to the stories the characters are telling us. Smith picks up a coat or hat from a stagehand and assumes a new character, and we buy it wholesale.
Merritt, for example, asks that her face not be shown, so when Smith plays her, she faces one of the huge mirrors on Ricardo Hernandez’s fantastic set, and we see the mirrored surface fade under a lighting change, while a video projection of Smith’s performance takes its place. It’s a nice way to give the woman her privacy, and because Smith’s face looks different on video, it physically distinguishes this character from the last one.
Oddly, the characters with the least hope aren’t the most beaten down; those are the folks from good backgrounds who end up in bad places. Ruth Katz, a patient at the Yale-New Haven Hospital, is disgusted at how badly she’s treated before she pulls rank on the doctors; New Orleans doctor Kiersta Kurtz-Burke is rueful about how swiftly her patients accept that their government has abandoned them to Katrina’s floodwaters while she’s still struggling with disbelief.
The theme here is health, but the topic is frequently health care, and nobody has much that’s encouraging to say on that subject. What’s left at the end is a meditation on comfort in the worst of conditions, perhaps best expressed by Howell, the orphanage director who must sit with her children when they die. “Don’t leave them in the dark,” she entreats us. “Don’t leave them in the dark.” And, as if obeying her, Smith doesn’t. As she carefully re-creates facial tics and misspoken syllables, she casts a radiance on the many ways in which we can care for one another, as well as ourselves.