With Let Me Down Easy the first thing you sense is the tremendous pleasure that an audience experiences when it knows that it’s in good hands. The show, which involves 20 characters with specific personal connections to contemporary medicine and health care, is the latest effort from the legendary Anna Deavere Smith, considered by many to be the most accomplished solo theatrical performer in America. The 20 portraits in speech and manner that Smith offers in Let Me Down range through a variety of doctors and patients, some famous, others not, to a minister and a Buddhist monk. What unites them in the show — beyond their common resourcefulness and vitality — is the Shakespearean way that Smith distills them with her writing, and then sets them aflame with a majestic performance full of subtlety and force. Each portrait gives off the urgency with which these people gave themselves to the project; their words resonate with the overtones of time dedicated to evading death. Through Smith, they each make an answer of absolute presence to death’s threat of irrevocable absence.
Leonard Foglia’s direction delivers the show’s waterfall of transitions in an uninterrupted flow, yet leaves every individual moment distinct. Riccardo Hernandez’s set uses mirrors and minimalism to be at once unobtrusive and intimately revealing of the nuances of the performance, especially in Santa Monica College’s magnificent Broad Stage. And, at the core, Deavere Smith throws theatrical lightning bolts in a performance that asserts the presence of an Olympian talent. Now, more than two decades into her creative journey with her On the Road: A Search for American Character project, Smith has reached a place where her own astonishing abilities — as a performer, an editor, an interviewer, and a writer — are being met by an equally amazing impulse on the part of her interview subjects. These people want to be known, and they want to share their most intimate selves with Smith so as to communicate through her to a larger audience what they know about the body, and about last things.
Rather than feeling that we’ve heard from all sides, as we may have done after Twilight: Los Angeles or Fires in the Mirror, Let Me Down Easy leaves us feeling as though we’ve heard reports from a borderland — the close side of the divide between life and death — but with echoes and overtones from further out. Without the structure provided by having all the speakers responding to a single series of events, Smith creates compositions in metaphor the better to map this terrain. In the first sequence, which focuses on people battling cancer, Smith uses the physical adventures of tough customers like Lance Armstrong, rodeo bullrider Brent Williams, and dancer/choreographer Elizabeth Streb to manifest the contours of this sharp edge. When Streb’s leotard catches on fire during a performance, there’s one way to picture the extremity of a life-threatening illness. And, with his tales of getting back on the bull no matter what, rodeo hero Williams lends his physical experience as another kind of material metaphor for the cancer patient’s wild ride.
In the show’s second phase the center of gravity shifts towards the gifts of grace and healing as expressed in the words of medical professionals and caregivers. Smith extends this territory to include some wonderfully unexpected guests. One particularly effective sequence takes us from the words of Phil Pizzo, the dean of the Stanford School of Medicine, to those of Eduardo Bruera, a palliative care doctor at the Anderson Cancer Center, by way of the musicologist Susan Youens, who meditates on the intertwined productivity, wisdom, and knowledge of early death that gives the music of Franz Schubert its special poignancy. For Smith, as for her subjects, to describe the “existential sadness” of dying requires art as well as the resources of medical science.
In the final segment Smith alternates between the bravery of the dying and the rueful observations of those charged with tending to their passing. Here Smith demonstrates her knack for identifying the defining moment with her portrait of the late Reverend Peter Gomes. As a dying man who himself performs funerals, Gomes sadly exhibits a keen double consciousness, but he does so with humor by cataloguing the many easy ways to say the wrong thing to bereaved people. Eventually, Gomes moves on to a few well-chosen words of consolation that are as original as his humorous observations and as appropriate as even the most traditional rhetorical formulas used to comfort the grief-stricken. It’s brilliant dramatic choices like this one, plus a lack of tendentiousness in its approach to the politically divisive subject of health care, and the sustaining focus on grace and healing that make Let Me Down Easy a must see.
Let Me Down Easy runs at the Broad Stage (1310 11th St., Santa Monica) through Sunday, July 31. For tickets and information, call (310) 434-3200 or visit thebroadstage.com.