One Woman, Many Voices: LET ME DOWN EASY at PTC

There are many voices in this nation’s health care debate, and Anna Deveare Smith could probably act out them all. In LET ME DOWN EASY, now onstage at Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre, she portrays twenty eclectic individuals, from sportspeople to supermodels, politicians to doctors, as they share their thoughts on health and death.

Smith’s compiled her material over the course of several years, interviewing hundreds of patients, doctors, and others about their experiences with deadly illness and health care. She extracted segments of twenty of these interviews and used their contents to form monologues delivered in the persona of the original interviewees.

The interviewees are a diverse range of individuals, celebrities and people from all walks of life and from several regions and countries. Smith’s transformations between them are entrancing, she moves with convincing ease through portrayals of the refined head of Stanford University School of Medicine or a drawling, strutting rodeo bull rider. She’s performing not just what they said but the way they said it, emphasizing the “uh”s and “ah”s, and maintaining the broken sentences and casual repetition that marks out an individual’s speech.

This is certainly not impersonation or mimicry, although some subjects (Lance Armstrong, for instance) come across as caricatures. Smith inhabits each character in a tour de force of individual acting. Even before she dons some token costume effects (designer Ann Hould-Ward) of a new character, she seems to become that person in tone and body language. As she drops these trappings to become a new speaker, the cleanly laid out stage (with four rear mirrors which bring the audience into the company of the characters; set design by Ricardo Hernandez) is littered by memories of previous interviewees.

Together, the fragments form part of a narrative about the human side of health care. LET ME DOWN EASY is not about taking a political side in the ongoing national debate. Nonetheless, Smith’s masterly portrayal of Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, head of a hospital for underprivileged New Orleans residents during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (the best skit, in my reckoning), leaves the audience with no doubt where her sympathies lie.

But despite a series of emotive performances, Smith’s work fails to gel as a coherent narrative. The last third of the piece focuses on an issue rarely discussed in Western culture: the approach of death. Giving different perspectives on life as the light fades, Smith seems uncertain where to end her account, although the final note, with a Buddhist monk pouring the last drops of water from a teacup, is fittingly profound.

LET ME DOWN EASY is the latest in a body of similar work; Smith previously addressed such issues as the Rodney King riots and the American presidency. Her style is highly evocative and effective and I regret not seeing her other works. Don’t miss this while the chance is there.

By Anna Deveare Smith
Directed by Leonard Foglia
Philadelphia Theatre Company
at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre
March 18 – April 10, 2011

Published by Stage Magazine.

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