Anna Deavere Smith’s latest one-woman play “Let Me Down Easy” is like a novella of stories – the individual vignettes are bold and interesting, but are only loosely linked.
From her spot-on impersonation of Lance Armstrong, whose body is so kinetic it can’t stay still, to pretending to be the bed-ridden, cancer-stricken film critic Joel Siegel, to her poignant portrayal of Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, an intern who was shocked by the way her superiors at Charity Hospital in New Orleans treated Katrina victims, Smith is mesmerizing in her ability to channel the words and quirks of her characters.
The 105-minute play is based on interviews with more than 320 people on three continents over a ten-year period. Smith focuses on 20 of those characters and uses their verbatim interviews to create a heart-wrenching portrait of our attitudes toward our bodies, their strengths and weaknesses, and our feelings about death.
On a stage sparsely decorated with a white couch, a dining table with chairs, and huge hanging mirrors, Smith changes lightening-fast from one person to another. She dons a piece of clothing or picks up a prop like a bottle of beer or coffee mug to delineate each character, and then discards those items on the stage as the play progresses. It’s almost a metaphor for her overarching theme: that life is ethereal and short. We are here and then we are not. The props are of use and then they are not, but traces of them remain.
Unlike her previous solo shows, “Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” which were centered on historical events, “Let Me Down Easy” does not have a straightforward narrative. It’s almost layer after layer of impressions about sickness and health, which add up to a larger picture of mortality.
Smith goes from Armstong talking about overcoming his cancer to Eve Ensler talking about the female body, including how “Tina Turner lives in her vagina,” to Lauren Hutton, whose stringy frame and gap-toothed smile made her the first supermodel (but who casually sullies her vessel by smoking), to people who are not famous.
Their words and stories are interesting, but the real star is Smith. Her ability to capture the nuances of each of the characters is remarkable. She has Lance Armstrong lifting his left leg numerous times to scratch his thigh. She nails Ann Richards’ Texas accent and irreverent attitude about her cancer, and her appreciation for her medical team. She becomes them, and her transcendence is so captivating that the audience wouldn’t dare to avert their eyes, even for a minute.
The buzz around “Let Me Down Easy” is already strong, and Berkeley Rep has extended the play until July 10.
Smith conceived, wrote, and performs Let Me Down Easy. Leonard Foglia directed the show. Riccardo Hernandez designed the sets, Ann Hould-Ward designed the costumes, Dan Ozminkowski did the lighting, Ryan Rumery did the sound, Zachary Borovay was the production designer, Joshua Redman created the musical elements, and Joseph Smelser was the stage manager.