review: let me down easy

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Let Me Down Easy

Conceived, written and performed by Anna Deavere Smith
Directed by Leonard Foglia
Originally produced by Second Stage Theatre, NYC
Arena Stage, 1101 6th Street SW, Washington, DC
production web site: http://tinyurl.com/5u4q5o2

December 31, 2010 — February 13, 2011

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
January 19, 2011

 

When you attend an Anna Deavere Smith-crafted show you see not one character but scores.  Sure, this actress can submerge herself delightfully into a single character crafted by someone else in movie and television properties.  In particular, I consider the ongoing delights of her Aaron Sorkin-penned roles The American President and The West Wing and currently her role in the Edie Falco television vehicle Nurse Jackie.  This evening at Arena Stage‘s magnificently rehabilitated and re-conceptualized space (now formally called The Mead Center for American Theater) is my first opportunity to see one of Smith’s deeply researched, dramatically nuanced assemblages of many characters out of a real time and space. This show, the most recent the series that Ms. Smith has been crafting since the 1980s, presents shards of the American experience addressing the universal experiences associated with illness, health care, and end of life questions.  This newest piece began life at Second Stage Theatre in New York city and continues life in our nation’s capital.  And it is transporting.

Smith has extracted magnificent theatre and has crafted a superb show arc from the stories of  20 named individuals and scores of others interviewed, incorporated, absorbed in her pursuit of personal answers to specific questions, in the case of this show, about health and considering end of life.  As in shows by other master storytellers in this vein (Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg come to mind), Smith doesn’t just tell but embodies.  She treats us to her  actor’s keen sense of which physical trait, which vocal tic, which rhythmic delivery to specify.  A beautiful woman — Smith does not add moustaches or fat suits or fancy makeup to climb into the skin of the people whose stories she will share with us.  Rather, with costumer designer Ann Hould-Ward she hones her presentations of men and women with carefully chosen costume pieces to augment — a jacket added, a tie clipped on, a cowboy hat for a bull rider, an apron tied backward over slacks to evoke a skirt. Carefully selected and paced stories (from superficially reflective to ministers) provide poetic resonance. Grace.  End of life.  Lives.

The set by Ricardo Hernandez frames beautifully.  Upstage right a white couch and coffee table. Upstage left a dining table and three chairs. The simple array, with panels of reflective material behind, provides many distinct playing spaces for this one-woman, intermission-less show.  Original musical elements by Joshua Redman haunt, enchant, entrance.

Tears, laughter, visits with old friends (as Ann Richards) and people whose stories we would never otherwise have heard at all.  The title of this master work comes from Union Theological Seminary professor James H. Cone, in the initial story, considering the meaning of those words in blues and spirituals.  We return to the phrase when television film critic Joel Siegel ponders the words as an image of gentle final rest, whether or not involving the hand of a god.  Finally, other words from the many individuals we meet in this piece of practical and spiritual discovery.

  • “I want to die in the middle of a move.” [Elizabeth Streb, choreographer, in “Fire Dance”]
  • “The best thing you can do with a person is to be present.” [Lance Armstrong in “Right on Time”]
  • “Athletes aren’t happy unless they’re actually used up….  Athletes are us.” [Sally Jenkins, sports columnist, in “Ashes”]
  • “Though I was conflicted about fighting, it defined me.” [Michael Bentt, heavyweight champion boxer,  in “When Boxers See Light”]
  • “I can’t talk to you.  You’re using up my chi.” [Ann Richards in “Chi”]

© Martha Wade Steketee (January 20, 2011)

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