Anna Devere Smith is a gifted performer. She has an uncanny ability to mold herself into the characters she presents in her investigative one-woman pieces. Ms. Smith has examined through hundreds of interviews contemporary American topics shaping many of her experiences into acclaimed theatrical events, such as On the Road: A Search for American Character, Twilight: Los Angeles and Fires in the Mirror.
In her latest piece, Let Me Down Easy,she allegedly is examining the state of health care in America. I say allegedly for while the monologues she presents are for the most part very compelling individually, there appears to be a lack of focus to the evening as a whole. Is Ms. Smith examining the health care crisis as the program notes suggest? Not really. Let Me Down Easy appears to ramble from a discussion of terminal illness, to the acceptance of death, to the inequities in the treatment of ill patients based on whether or not they have the ability to pay. It is a journey that does not easily travel from point A to point B.
Chameleon-like, Ms. Smith morphs herself into her subjects with the addition of an article of clothing, a prop, the change in the way she holds her body, a dialect or inflection in her voice. Presenting the viewpoints of twenty individuals, she transfixes the audience over the slightly more than an hour and a half running time. On a simple set of a couch, coffee table, dining table set and vast mirrors unobtrusively designed by Riccardo Hernadez, Ms. Smith leaves mementoes of each person as she travels through the piece.
Individually most of the monologues are compelling. However, without a clear thematic focus it is difficult for the audience to see what goal the audience is supposed to leave the theatre thinking about the most. The subjects of the piece range from doctors to theologians to patients to celebrities. Many of the pieces are about the humanity of treating the seriously and, more often than not, terminally ill. "A Sheet Around My Daughter," describing the indignity suffered by a dialysis patient when her treatment leaks and the patient is sent home with blood on her clothes and in her hair is a devastating portrayal of insensitivity. "Heavy Sense of Resignation" about the indigent patients left unrescued for days in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina whilst the richer patients in the private hospitals were evacuated shows the inequity suffered by the poor in this country. It is stories such as this that should drive the evening. Instead, they are interrupted by the unnecessary inclusion of most of the celebrities. The evening would be better without the contributions of Lance Armstrong, Eve Ensler, Lauren Hutton and Ann Richards. The only celebrity that seems to "fit" the evening is Joel Siegal shown during his dying moments in the compelling "3,000 Years of Being Kicked Around Europe."
Anna Devere Smith is worth seeing upon the stage for attempting to bring focus to health care, death and dying. However, Let Me Down Easy still needs tweaking. A decision on just what the evening is supposed to be about and focusing the monologues on that goal would take this worthy start into a startlingly compelling evening of theatre.
Second Stage Theatre's production of Let Me Down Easy will be performed in the Kreeger Theatre at Arena Stage through February 13, 2011. For tickets and other performance information please visit www.arenastage.org.