Death is a touchy subject for some people to talk about, but it’s one that Anna Deavere Smith tackles head-on in Let Me Down Easy, her thought-provoking new theater piece, now at Second Stage Theatre. More precisely, it’s a subject discussed by many of the more than 20 people whose conversations are presented verbatim by Smith over the course of an engrossing 95 minutes.
Flitting about on Riccardo Hernandez’s all-white set and donning and doffing the appropriate accessories provided by costumer Ann Hould-Ward, the chameleonic Smith fully physicalizes each person she’s interviewed. In doing so, she ultimately paints a compelling cross-section of humanity, from the high and mighty to the decidedly non-famous.
Some of the people we’re exposed to, like Tour De France champion Lance Armstrong, boxer Michael Bentt, and former Texas governor Ann Richards (who passed away in 2006), share how their brushes with illness and death changed them, in some cases for the better. Others, like Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, and the Reverend Peter Gomes, a Harvard University minister, present a more philosophical viewpoint about the finality of life. Each subject adds their own brand of insight and understanding to the discussion.
However, death is not the only issue on Smith’s inquiring mind. The middle section — and the most impressive part — of Let Me Down Easy is primarily concerned with America’s health care crisis, as seen and experienced first-hand. For example, Ruth Katz, an associate dean at Yale University Medical Center, tells of how she was treated badly as a cancer patient at Yale New Haven Hospital until a resident is informed of her position. Most poignant is the recollection of Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, a physician at New Orleans’ Charity Hospital, who reminds us of FEMA’s neglect of this country’s poor in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Under Leonard Foglia’s savvy direction, Smith wisely incorporates a great deal of humor into the proceedings, which also helps undercut any hint of didacticism. Not every section seems necessary — and I think Smith might have been wiser to reshuffle some of the segments’ order — but every word and gesture presented by Smith appears to have been carefully considered.
Most importantly, though, Let Me Down Easy looks honestly at some very hard topics, which is something not all of us feel comfortable to do ourselves.