nna Deavere Smith’s latest production, Let Me Down Easy, airs on THIRTEEN’s Great Performances Friday, January 13th at 9 pm on PBS (check local listings).
Conceived, written and performed by Smith in her signature one-person performance style, the play examines the miracle of human resilience through the lens of our current national debate on health care.
Originally presented at Long Wharf Theatre, the play received its New York premiere at Second Stage Theatre. The Great Performances production was recorded in February 2011 in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater in Washington, DC, launching a national tour that concluded in September.
Great Performances is a production of THIRTEEN for WNET, one of America’s most prolific and respected public media providers.
Having been credited with creating a new form of theater, Smith interviewed an eclectic group of people (300 on three continents) to create Let Me Down Easy and performs several in an evening that is funny, moving and engaging.
The title resonates on several levels, reverberating with meanings of lost love, the faith that sustains people in times of difficulty and, ultimately, the end of life.
Smith, through her chameleon-like virtuosity, creates an indelible gallery of portraits, from a rodeo bull rider to a prize fighter to a New Orleans doctor during Hurricane Katrina, as well as boldface names like former Texas governor Ann Richards, legendary cyclist Lance Armstrong, network film critic Joel Siegel and supermodel Lauren Hutton. In the course of an hour and 35 minutes, she presents 19 characters. Their stories are alternately humorous and heart-wrenching, and often a blend of both. Building upon each other with hypnotic force, her subjects recount personal encounters with the frailty of the human body, ranging from a mere brush with mortality, coping with an uncertain future in today’s medical establishment, to confronting an end-of-life transition. The testimony of health care professionals adds further texture to a vivid portrayal of the cultural and societal attitudes to matters of health.
With keen observation and understated compassion, Smith — without judgment and maintaining the dignity of her subjects at all times — effortlessly submerges her own persona and assumes her characters’ vocal and physical mannerisms with unerring accuracy.
Despite the profound poignancy of the issues at hand, Smith leavens the evening with many lighter anecdotes, some outright hilarious: choreographer Elizabeth Streb recounts how she accidentally set herself on fire as part of an elaborate birthday celebration; Smith’s own aunt (Lorraine Colman) recalls the last (and distinctly unsentimental) words uttered by her elder sister; and when a Yale School of Medicine oncology fellow informs cancer patient Ruth Katz that the hospital has lost her records — he is dumbfounded to discover she is actually the associate dean of the medical school there. Other characters address the intensity of the will to live even in the face of dire sickness: University of Notre Dame musicologist Susan Youens rhapsodizes on the Adagio from Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major, one of more than a thousand works Schubert composed before his untimely death at age 31; and while undergoing chemotherapy, Ann Richards defiantly tells of learning how to hang up the phone to preserve her precious “chi.”
Called “the most exciting individual in American theater” by Newsweek magazine, Smith (Fires in the Mirror, Twilight: Los Angeles) in Let Me Down Easy tells a powerful story that points to the financial and psychological cost of care, the preciousness of life and the inevitability of our mortality.
“Even in the darkest hour, even where the crisis is the greatest, you’ll often find people who have the gift of grace, the gift of kindness, the gift of healing,” Smith observed. “Ultimately, through this play I am trying to spark a conversation that is easier, and maybe more enjoyable to have through art and entertainment than through politics.”
Let Me Down Easy was inspired by her work at Yale School of Medicine, where she was invited as a visiting professor. Bill Moyers dedicated a full hour segment to profiling Smith and Let Me Down Easy, noting with amazement how her play transformed “a houseful of strangers” into “an intimate community.”
Throughout the evening, Smith assumes the parts of (in order):
- James H. Cone, author, reverend and professor, Union Theological Seminary, NYC
- Elizabeth Streb, choreographer, Streb Dance Company, NYC
- Brent Williams, rodeo bull rider, Idaho
- Lance Armstrong, Tour de France victor
- Sally Jenkins, sports columnist, The Washington Post
- Michael Bentt, world champion heavyweight boxer
- Hazel Merritt, patient, Yale-New Haven Hospital
- Lauren Hutton, supermodel
- Ruth Katz, patient, Yale-New Haven Hospital
- Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, physician, Charity Hospital, New Orleans
- Dr. Phillip A. Pizzo, dean, Stanford University School of Medicine
- Susan Youens, musicologist, University of Notre Dame
- Eduardo Bruera, palliative care M.D., Anderson Cancer Center
- Ann Richards, former governor, Texas
- Lorraine Coleman, retired teacher, Anna Deavere Smith’s aunt
- Joel Siegel, ABC movie critic
- Peter Gomes, reverend, Memorial Church, Howard University
- Trudy Howell, director, Chance Orphanage, Johannesburg
- Matthieu Ricard, Buddhist monk, author, French translator for the Dalai Lama
NBC’s Today raved, “Run — do not walk — to see this play! Watching Anna Deavere Smith on stage is magical. One minute you are laughing, the next you are crying. It is truly brilliant and stunning.” Variety heralded the work as “a totally vital piece of theater, mixing a standup comic’s instincts with a great reporter’s keen eye.” It was named one of Entertainment Weekly’s Top 10 of 2009.
On the West Coast, the San Francisco Chronicle declared the work “extraordinary,” and added, “This is Smith at the top of her unique documentary theater form, in writing, performance, and timeliness.”
Smith has been credited with creating a new form of theater. When granted the prestigious MacArthur Award, her work was described as “a blend of theatrical art, social commentary, journalism and intimate reverie.” She has performed in film and TV as well as on stage. She currently plays Gloria Akalitus on Showtime’s hit series Nurse Jackie, and is well remembered for her role of national security advisor Nancy McNally on NBC’s The West Wing. Her major film credits include The American President, Philadelphia, and Rachel Getting Married.
Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles played across the U.S. and on Broadway, receiving two Tony nominations, an Obie, Drama Desk Award, the New York Drama Critics Circle’s Special Citation and numerous other honors.
She produced, wrote and performed in the film version of Twilight for PBS. Another of her plays, Fires in the Mirror, examined the Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn (1991), when racial tensions between black and Jewish neighbors exploded. It received an Obie Award, numerous other awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She performed the play around the U.S., in London and in Australia. The film version was also broadcast on PBS.
Let Me Down Easy — directed for the stage by theater and opera director Leonard Foglia — was directed for television by veteran Matthew Diamond (Cyrano de Bergerac, From Broadway: Fosse, Swan Lake with American Ballet Theatre, all for Great Performances, and an Oscar nominee for the 1999 documentary Dancemaker).
After its Arena Stage run, the production embarked on a national tour with stops at The Wexner Center for the Arts; Philadelphia Theatre Company; a collaborative presentation of San Diego REPertory Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, and the Vantage Theatre, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and The Broad Stage.
Great Performances is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Irene Diamond Fund, Vivian Milstein, the Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, the Starr Foundation and Joseph A. Wilson, the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, public television viewers and PBS. For Great Performances, Bill O’Donnell and Mitch Owgang are producers; O’Donnell is series producer; David Horn is executive producer.