January 20, 2011 | by Patrick Folliard
Quick change artist

‘Let Me Down Easy’

Through Feb. 13

Arena Stage

1101 Sixth Street, S.W.

$40-$85

202-554-9066

Anna Deavere Smith in Second Stage's production of 'Let Me Down Easy,' directed by Leonard Foglia. (Photo by Joan Marcus; courtesy of Second Stage)

With her solo show “Let Me Down Easy,” Anna Deavere Smith again holds up mirrors. This time, they’re on health care.

The topic of discussion isn’t as laser focused as Smith’s previous forays into the one-woman arena (“Fire in the Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles,” about the riots in Crown Heights and South Central, respectively), but the touring show’s message is still pretty clear: neither illness nor U.S. health care are fair. Through a selection of 20 disparate, engrossing testimonials, Smith, who declines to disclose her sexual orientation, gradually makes her point.

As with her earlier works, Smith extracts her monologues verbatim from interviews she conducted. A consummate mimic, she brilliantly trots a cross-section of America (including a boxer, bull rider, doctor, Buddhist monk, professor) onto the stage of Arena’s intimate Kreeger Theatre, seamlessly morphing from one person to the next. As she takes on their physicality, voice and demeanor without ever entirely losing her own formidable presence in the enthralling process, Smith allows us to meet her interviewees (each of whom is identified by a projected name and title) and to seemingly learn their stories firsthand.

Longtime model Lauren Hutton, never one to be deterred by the velvet rope, brags about gaining entrée to New York’s best health care professionals. It’s all about connections. Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong discusses how his intensely competitive nature helped him to beat cancer and eventually return to his sport. Lesbian choreographer Elizabeth Streb remembers lighting herself on fire as she performed a fire dance for her girlfriend. Not all of Smith’s subjects are well known. Her aunt, retired Baltimore school teacher Lorraine Coleman, hilariously recalls the last words her dying sister said to her: “You still got that big ass!”

During her 100-minute performance, Smith goes beyond the usual health care arguments. Yes, Brent Williams, a repeatedly banged-up bull rider, clearly expresses his distrust of doctors and a medical school dean suggests that patients and doctors might consider discussing the extent of end-of-life care (a notion notoriously referred to as “death panels” by opponents of health care reform), but for the most part, Smith relies on the personal experiences of patients and caregivers alike.

In the particularly poignant and uncanny portrayals of feisty Texas governor Ann Richards and TV movie critic Joel Siegel, Smith reveals the enduring humor and resilient spirits of two strong individuals at different stages in their ultimately losing battles with cancer.

One of the show’s more gripping contributions comes from Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, a physician at Charity Hospital in New Orleans. The doctor forcefully shares her dismay when she discovered during Hurricane Katrina that despite her previous beliefs, she was unable to offer her underserved patients services on par with private hospitals. Kurtz-Burke describes the heroic behavior of the African-American nurses, orderlies and patients who tirelessly braved the storm under primitive conditions, taking in stride what for them was just another instance of the government letting them down (not so easily in their case).

Staged by Broadway’s Leonard Foglia, Smith does her thing on a round stage backed, appropriately, by five huge mirrors. She wears a tailored white shirt and dark pinstriped pants to which she adds and subtracts jackets, a tie or lab coat depending on the character. By show’s end the stage is littered with tea trays, garments and coffee cups, visual reminders of those who have and have not added their thoughts to the discussion.

After the 20 vivid tales completely unfold, Smith seems to intentionally leave us with a discouraging, sometimes hopeful, but ultimately unfinished picture of life, death and health care in America.

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