Thursday, April 14, 2011
Anna Deavere Smith’s remarkable one-woman show “Let Me Down Easy” could be re-named “Lift Me Up Intensely.” Over a year ago, I’d read an article in the New York Times magazine about the play, so I knew it was about America’s health care crisis. The health care crisis is an important social issue, but not, I thought, the stuff of art. I bought my tickets to a recent performance of the show at the Suzanne Roberts Theater in Philadelphia, expecting to be provoked, outraged, and educated. I did not expect to be enthralled and moved.
I knew that Ms. Smith had done a huge amount of research for this play, interviewing over three-hundred people from around the world, then distilling these interviews to just twenty to portray onstage. Accompanied by music, stylish lighting, occasional props (mostly food and drink,) moving from table to comfy couch, she conveys the essence of each real-life character, from theologian to writer, to celebrity athlete, politician, physician, and patient — even a bullrider, and a Buddhist monk.
Ms. Smith hilariously embodies former Texas governor Ann Richards, as she was fighting esophageal cancer, and explaining why she couldn’t keep as many apppointments and do as many meet-and-greets as she used to: “I’ve got to protect my chi.” Lance Armstrong’s fierce description of his triumph against testicular cancer is followed by the sportswriter Sally Jenkins’ astute observations of the behavior of top-level athletes – that they don’t conserve anything, they want to go all out, want to be all used up -– they are going to compete to win, whether it’s a bicycle race or a boxing match, or death. Ms. Smith’s depiction of Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, the physician stranded with her impoverished patients at the doomed Charity Hospital of New Orleans, made me cry, as did her portrayal of Trudy Howell, who cares for AIDS orphans in South Africa.
But most moving to me was the scene with Susan Youens, a musicologist from Notre Dame. To the strains of the Adagio from Schubert’s string quintet, Ms. Youens explains that Franz Schubert contracted syphilis at the age of 25, and knew he was going to die. All his compositions from that point forward are tinged, Ms. Youens says, with poignancy, with brief rages against death, with acceptance, and occasionally the sounding of funerary “passing bells.” By the time he died, before his 32nd birthday, Schubert had left the world with a thousand incredible songs, sonatas, and symphonies.
“If I met Schubert, would I like him?” Ms. Youens says. “No, I would not like Schubert.
I would love Schubert.”
“Let Me Down Easy” is not about the health care system. “Let Me Down Easy” is about mortality, and its counterpart, living life. “Let Me Down Easy” expresses one philosophy as memorably as Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town:” that each moment we have on earth is precious, and we should therefore live each moment as if it were a treasured gift.