by Clark Groome
You might expect that a play about our mortality would be either glum or flippant. Anna Deavere Smith’s “Let Me Down Easy” is neither. It is, more than anything else, a portrait of how people deal with death. Some ignore it. Some face it down. Some view it as a beginning rather than an end.
The play — which is being presented by the Philadelphia Theatre Company only through April 10 — is based on interviews she conducted as part of a project at the Yale School of Medicine. For this piece, the 18th installment of her larger “On the Road: A Search for American Character,” she interviewed more than 300 people. We hear what 20 of them had to say.
Some of the people are famous: cyclist Lance Armstrong, playwright Eve Ensler, supermodel Lauren Hutton, former Texas governor Ann Richards, ABC’s movie critic Joel Siegel and Harvard University minister Peter Gomes.
Others — a doc at the Charity Hospital in New Orleans during the days following Hurricane Katrina; Stanford University School of Medicine’s dean, and the director of the Chance Orphanage in Johannesburg, South Africa, who deals with the kids dying of AIDS — are intimately involved in the health care system.
Some, including Smith’s aunt, which for me was the most moving interview, are just regular folk dealing with illness and death. Smith channels each of them, delivering their words. The most amazing thing about the 95-minute play is that while it is dealing with really big issues, it is more uplifting than depressing. The human quality of her subjects, those sick or dying and those who are caring for them, is the most abundant, life-affirming element in “Let Me Down Easy.”
Not only is our approach to death tackled in this wonderful play, so are issues dealing with our health care system. It’s not polemic or preachy; it simply presents the different points of view her characters have about what is expected and what is possible. It’s a smart and savvy approach.
Smith, a tremendous actress by any standard, gives, with only the help of an occasional prop or costume piece, each person a clear and unique voice. It’s a stunning performance. She manages to make Ann Richards as funny as she always was and Lance Armstrong as competitive and determined as he still is.
Leonard Foglia’s direction respects Smith’s concept and the individual stories she tells. The fine Ricardo Hernandez set is composed of five large mirrors that reflect what Smith says and allows us to view ourselves, giving the piece a “we’re all in this together” feel, which, of course, we are.
Ann Hould-Ward, Dan Ozminkowski and Ryan Rumery are the good costume, lighting and sound designers. The great jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman has supplied the wonderful “original musical elements.”
For tickets to the Philadelphia Theatre Company production of “Let Me Down Easy,” starring Anna Deavere Smith and playing through April 10, call 215-985-0420 or visit www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org