Anna Deavere Smith’s ‘Let Me Down Easy’ on PBS

One thing I loved about Pasadena was the population’s interest in culture such as art and dance. And now, Pasadena is becoming a real theater town. So I imagine that many Pasadenans would be interested in the PBS broadcast (on Friday, 13 January 2012, 9 p.m., check local listings) of “Anna Deavere Smith’s “Let Me Down Easy,” a one-woman show about body–strong and weak and the human spirit.

Hearing talk about body and the body politic might make it seem dreary, but this performance is earnest, funny and, at times, heartbreaking. Recorded in February of last year at the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater in Washington, D.C., the play went on a national tour that ended in September, but there’s no reason to stop the conversation. Health care for the haves and have-nots and the fears and trials of treatment are an ongoing concern that crosses ethnic and regional lines.

Directed by Leonard Foglia for the stage and by Matthew Diamond for television, “Let Me Down Easy” puts you in the front seats and gives you an intimate feel as we are swept through 19 characterizations. All of these characters are real people and the words are scripted by each individual person during interviews with Smith.

Smith as Reverend James H. Cone begins by explaining the blues origin of the phrase, “Let me down easy.” The phrase is about broken hearts, and broken love, but also about injustice, death and dying.

Dressed in black pants and a white shirt, Smith signals changes in characters by her vocal changes in accent and rhythm, physical mannerisms and simple costume additions of jackets, hats or glasses, etc.

A few famous people are portrayed such as choreographer Elizabeth Streb, Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins, Tour de France winner and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, model Lauren Hutton, former governor of Texas Ann Richards and ABC movie critic Joel Siegel.

Streb talks about lighting herself on fire and how some people “embrace the danger thing.” Does that make life more vivid? Cancer survivor Armstrong comes off as so straight-forward, he’s funny.

Jenkins considers how athletes are about expending energy and the adrenaline rush. She talks about Armstrong and what drives him. Athletes, die too deaths, she claims and asking athletes not to take performance-enhancing drugs because they might hurt themselves when they’re continually pushing their bodies beyond what is reasonable and at the edge of disaster is ridiculous.

Richards has the benefit of good health insurance and a daughter who is concerned about her keeping up her energy (“I can’t talk to you right now, you’re using up my Chi.”). Democrat Richards was the second woman to serve as governor of Texas (1991-1995). She died in 2006  the same year she was originally diagnosed with esophageal cancer.

Siegel humorously tells how suddenly he’s “tough” and how he is always acting a part. “I’m Jewish…you learn you don’t ask God for things because he’s not going to give them to you.”  Siegel’s second wife had died from a brain tumor in 1982. He was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 1997, a year after he married his fourth wife and around the time he found out his wife was pregnant with his first child. Siegel died in 2007 from cancer.

Mixed with these are people like Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, a physician at a charity hospital in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit. She talks about how callous some doctors were at the charity hospital and how, during Hurricane Katrina, the government and FEMA mirrored those attitudes, leaving these patients to be the last ones out. “It was the first time I had been totally abandoned by my government.”

A patient at Yale-New Haven Hospital, Hazel Merritt, who was diagnosed with diabetes and now needs dialysis due to kidney problems, talks about a horrific incident with her daughter in the hospital.  There’s a stunning contrast between the poor and the rich. How someone like Lauren Hutton or a dean of a medical school, get a “little edge” into the best.

This is a fascinating collection of characters which together forms a power meditation on life, love, ambition and even class and courage. As she travels through each character, she tosses off the props, leaving a symbolic trail on the set. We can’t avoid death so we must all consider comfort and care and if our culture will let us down easy.

Smith’s played the national security advisor on NBC’s “The West Wing” and was nominated for two Tony awards for her play on the Los Angeles riots, “Twilight: Los Angeles.”

Tune in to watch on Friday, 13  January 2012, 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings)

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