Theater review: ‘Let Me Down Easy’ at the Lyceum Stage
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Montaigne was so fascinated by the Roman philosopher Cicero’s contention “that to study philosophy is to prepare to die” that he turned the idea into a chapter title of one of his “Essays.” Before one can die well, the 16th century French author reasoned, one must first learn to live well.
Anna Deavere Smith, the acclaimed writer-performer of documentary collages, makes a similar connection in her vitally important, wide-ranging and ultimately very moving solo piece “Let Me Down Easy,” which opened Friday at the Lyceum Stage in San Diego. Taking up the hot-button issue of our broken healthcare system, she is naturally led to an appraisal of the human body, both its astonishing capacities and its intractable limits, and to the societal forces — economic, racial and religious — that alter our relationship to mortality.
Perpetually in search of the American character, Smith takes a slightly different tack this time in her work: Contemplating the thousand natural shocks that Shakespeare told us flesh is heir to, she ventures toward a secular definition of the human soul.
Many documentary theater artists operate in a tautological mode, proving to their audience just what they said was the case all along. Smith seems to enjoy losing the thread of her own certainty. Didacticism doesn’t interest her any more than ideological one-upmanship. She’s more probing than partisan, which is why she was ideally suited to tackle such polarizing events as the riots that occurred in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict (“Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” ) and in Crown Heights after a grievous death and subsequent murder escalated tensions at the border of two Brooklyn communities (“Fires in the Mirror”). What is Smith’s secret? The same as that of any great theater artist: She knows how to listen.
She also has a great Rolodex. Or at least access to a diverse range of heady personalities. Her interview subjects include cycling great Lance Armstrong, supermodel Lauren Hutton, ordinary patients, frontline medical workers and even Smith’s own elderly aunt. Several have passed away since she spoke with them (such as Gov. Ann Richards, movie critic Joel Siegel and Harvard’s Rev. Peter J. Gomes), but one by one Smith summons her crew to the stage by catching the trick of their voice and distilling the essence of what they intimately shared with her about life’s transience.
Impersonation isn’t her forte. Smith is more of a caricaturist than a finely nuanced realist, and the likenesses she arrives at aren’t always flattering. Her mannerisms are sometimes overdone — Armstrong comes across as genial yet simian; writer and activist Eve Ensler is made to seem as over-the-top behind closed doors as she is onstage. But the moral force of Smith’s work keeps the mimicry from falling into mockery. There’s a higher purpose to her lampooning. She honors Richards’ experience as a woman fiercely battling terminal cancer even as she has a field day re-creating her Texan flamboyance.
This Second Stage Theatre production of “Let Me Down Easy,” directed by Leonard Foglia, has been brought to San Diego through a partnership involving San Diego Repertory Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse and Vantage Theatre. (For L.A. residents not in the mood to fight traffic, the show comes to the Broad Stage in Santa Monica in July.) Presented on a set by Riccardo Hernandez that includes a couple of tidy seating arrangements and mirrors offering oblique views of Smith in action, the piece is both minimalist theater and enlightening town hall, with a cast of one animating an entire forum.
When I first encountered “Let Me Down Easy” off-Broadway in 2009, the healthcare debate (in all its multifaceted inanity) was gathering steam. A compromised bill may have squeaked through Congress since, but the underlying concerns — about costs, control and fairness — have yet to be resolved. The urgency of Smith’s investigation remains sadly undiminished.
Yet how could it be otherwise when, lightly as we may tread along our mortal timelines, the fear of the end lurks just on the other side of our denial — denial not just of death but of the uncertainty of a peaceful, dignified and affordable exit? Our quite reasonable anxiety, Smith impressionistically suggests, should strengthen our sense of community. We may not have the physical prowess of a world-class athlete, the intellectual acumen of a Stanford University medical dean or the spiritual resourcefulness of a Buddhist monk (participants all), but our corporeal vulnerability unites us.
Which is why the disparities in healthcare reported in the segment about Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, a physician at New Orleans’ Charity Hospital, seem like something far worse than a failure of public policy. It’s morally heartbreaking to hear about those who were abandoned, post-Katrina, by “the system,” forced to trek through the land of illness with only the smallest fraction of support enjoyed by the rich and privileged, who are themselves overwhelmed under far more luxurious conditions.
The storytelling here is discursive, moving in a way that is more intuitive than logical. Smith wants to broaden our democratic scope, not convince us of her own preconceived views. That said, the interview excerpts aren’t always well shaped (the one involving heavyweight champion boxer Michael Bentt is unfocused), and the transitions can seem awkward until Smith finds her thematic footing about a quarter of the way through. But roughhewn or polished, scattered or orderly, these testimonies are deposited into our collective consciousness, and their truthfulness is allowed to silently unfold.
A few lines by Eduardo Bruera, a palliative care doctor, in the segment titled “Existential Sadness,” resonate particularly deeply. “Some people have an easy death,” Smith relates in a loose version of Bruera’s Argentine accent. “Some people have a very difficult death. And that should not surprise us because … some of us have a very easy life. And some of us have a very difficult life.”
One of the extraordinary aspects of “Let Me Down Easy” is the way it encourages us, subtly yet insistently, to become more compassionate toward both forms of difficulty.
‘Let Me Down Easy,” Lyceum Stage, 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego. 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 15. $39 to $53. (619) 544-1000 or www.sdrep.org Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Also: July 20-31 at the Broad Stage, Santa Monica