The talented actor/playwright Anna Deavere Smith makes her Philadelphia debut in the remarkable solo docudrama Let Me Down Easy, which is currently playing at Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre.
Conceived, written and performed by Smith under Leonard Foglia’s capable direction, Easy is a quieter, more reflective play than Smith’s previous major works—Twilight: Los Angeles and Fires in the Mirror—both of which focused on issues of race and neighborhoods in peril. In Easy, it is the human body that is violated; themes touched on include health care and coming to terms with our own mortality.
Smith (who is perhaps best known for her role on TV’s The West Wing) is often credited with inventing the style of theater known as docudrama. Instead of creating and portraying fictional characters, in docudrama all the characters we encounter are real people. The words they speak are entirely their own, taken verbatim from the more than 300 interviews Smith conducted for the play. In Easy, 20 of those interviewees appear in a series of monologues. The subjects range from the famous (seven-time Tour de France winner and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong; former Texas Gov. Ann Richards; supermodel Lauren Hutton) to the ordinary (a New Orleans hospital worker).
With one exception, the first few people we meet are all public figures. They speak about death and disease, but often in a roundabout way. A philosophical Armstrong (who survived testicular cancer) compares death to an athlete retiring; playwright Eve Ensler talks about women “who live in their vagina” (Tina Turner apparently being a prime example); and choreographer Elizabeth Streb reveals that she wants to experience a “traumatic injury” like being shot.
It is a testament to Smith’s skills as an actress and playwright that it only takes a matter of moments to feel like we really know the characters who appear onstage. Using gestures, movement and her extraordinarily flexible voice, Smith doesn’t just mimic a person’s way of moving and speaking; she inhabits their psyche. She is exacting in her carefully sketched portraits, making sure to distinguish Armstrong’s mild Texas twang from Richards’ pronounced drawl. Other performances are more physical, such as Smith’s portrayal of heavyweight boxer Michael Bentt. Sitting on a stool and chewing a piece of gum with the zest of a boxer working over an inferior opponent, Smith’s transformation to Bentt is so convincing we forget we are in a theater watching a performance.
While Smith’s portrayals of the play’s recognizable figures allow us to marvel at her abilities as an impersonator, it is the words themselves that carry the most impact. “Thank God I can afford this,” Richards explains, talking about how her health insurance assured her the best care for her esophageal cancer. In contrast, there’s Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, who worked at New Orleans’ Charity Hospital in the days following Hurricane Katrina: “There’s no reason I can’t give everyone top-of-the-line medical care,” she says. But for some reason, patients at the private hospitals were evacuated while the critically ill at Charity deteriorated. They were “the last ones out,” Kurtz-Burke recalls.
To call Smith one of America’s great actresses (which she is) is to ignore her talents as a playwright. Her script is crafted so one story flows seamlessly into the next, with Smith pausing only momentarily to add or subtract a garment of clothing such as a doctor’s coat, cowboy hat or hospital gown.
Though Easy is at times devastating, it is not a somber play. The specter of death is never far from our thoughts, but it is the combination of resilience and quiet grace displayed by people who have confronted with their own death or the death of a loved one that we remember. In this strangely uplifting play that is alternately touching, terrifying, poignant and affirming it isn’t death that is foremost on our minds, but life and the need to treasure every moment.
Through April 10. $25-$59. Suzanne Roberts Theatre. Broad and Lombard Streets. 215.985.0420.
Calendar: Aug. 26-Sept. 2