It took an historic, three-way collaboration — the San Diego Rep, Vantage Theatre, and the La Jolla Playhouse — to bring Anna Deavere Smith to San Diego for the first time. The collaboration breaks ground for sharing resources. Smith’s performance runs only through May 15. Go!
Among many things, Smith is the reporter you wish were on the scene at the time. In Fires in the Mirror (racial tensions in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights) and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (reactions to the beating of Rodney King), Smith portrays people who don’t make the papers or — often carefully chosen to represent specific viewpoints at the expense of others — TV soundbites. Smith doesn’t just quote her subjects, she becomes them with astonishing precision: accents, rhythms, mannerisms, twitches, entire lexicons of body language. She brings each person to such life that, by the time they exit, they feel familiar.
Not only that, it’s soon clear that she’s creating exact replicas. Her work’s so detailed, it takes acting to places it rarely goes. At one point, a man reaches down, scratches an itch on his leg, and keeps talking throughout. The scratch doesn’t feel like a planned, actorly “moment.” It just happens, something he couldn’t avoid, and fits him perfectly (she obviously enjoys doing things actors aren’t supposed to do, as when a character blows his nose, a nostril at a time, with unselfconscious vigor). In all her portrayals, it’s as if Smith becomes a window, through which her subjects come to life unedited.
Let Me Down Easy has a much wider scope than Fires or Twilight. Like the others, it opens up ideas and issues rather than pins them down, and it moves almost musically, like a score by Schubert. Twenty people talk about extreme athletic feats, sickness and health care, death and dying. Sometimes the piece feels a bit diffuse, but that’s because of its abundance. Smith gives her audience a whole lot to think and feel.
Let Me Down moves from flesh to spirit. Roughly the first half concerns what we do to our bodies and what our bodies do to us. The second half subtly shifts to notions beyond the physical. Throughout, to paraphrase Henry James, Smith shows that the fact of death will kill you, but the thought of death can save you.
The title comes from songs sung by Billy Currington and Johnny Cash (the Rolling Stones also have a version: “Let Me Down Real Slow”). The singer asks a potential lover that, should they have to break it off, to go easy. Cash sings: “I’m bound to lose you/ I’m bound to cry/ Oh, let me down easy/ And I’ll get by.”
But, from the start, Smith adds a second possible reading. Dylan Thomas exhorts us: “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” — i.e., go kicking and screaming into the unknown like a newborn babe. The alternative, mentioned early by Professor James H. Cone, and toward the end by movie critic Joel Siegel, struggling with cancer, suggests, “Let me die easy.”
At the beginning, Elizabeth Streb, choreographer, boasts about choosing among violent deaths, going out with a bang, all triggered by the day she accidentally set herself briefly on fire. She and cyclist Lance Armstrong (who survived cancer and claims to have no “spirituality”) treat mortality as a conquerable opponent and speak as if immortal.
One of the most moving monologues in this section: “When Boxers See Lights.” Michael Bentt became WBO world heavyweight champion in 1993 when he knocked out Tommy Morrison. The next year he fought Herbie Hide and the arena went dark. When he woke up, the first thing he saw was a doctor’s pen light. Brain injuries would never let him fight again, he tells us, as his hands instinctively bang sparring gloves.
Health care bridges the body/soul sections. A double standard emerges. A spacey Lauren Hutton admits she’s blessed to afford ultimate medical care. Among those who can’t, Hazel Merrit relates a horror story about ill-treatment during dialysis. Caught in the middle: Ruth Katz, a “bedrock-of-care” patient at Yale New Haven Hospital whose records disappear (turns out she’s assistant dean of the medical school); and Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, a physician in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina who battles disillusionment when the government sends aid to the wealthier wards and won’t “come to get us” in a flooded hospital.
Smith works barefoot. Over dark pants and a white shirt, she adds few accessories: a candy-striped coat, glasses, a Stetson hat, a glass of red wine. These often appear after she’s established the character and adds a final touch. She performs before four tall, tilted mirrors (which resemble Stonehenge, if it were made of reflective glass) on a minimalist set, lit with nuances worthy of Smith’s. After each monologue, Smith leaves a trace of the person behind. They remain alive in memory, as will Smith’s deeply felt, captivating performance, for a long, long time. ■
Let Me Down Easy, conceived, written, and performed by Anna Deavere Smith.
Lyceum Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown.
Directed by Leonard Foglia; scenic design, Riccardo Hernandez; costumes, Ann Hould-Ward; lighting, Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer; sound, Ryan Rumery.
Playing through May 15; Sunday and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-544-1000.