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Nothing ‘Easy’ About Show on Life and Death

Arena Stage has packaged a powerful one-woman play as an extended discussion about health care policy.

But don’t let that stop you. Anna Deavere Smith, in “Let Me Down Easy,” lures the audience into a moving examination of life, death, human existence, suffering and pain — and just about everything in between. It’s anything but easy.

The play begins slow and conversational, like the opening of a Tina Turner song. In fact, Turner gets a mention in the masterful monologue, which builds in a gradual crescendo and weaves in references to bull-riding, anorexia, George Burns jokes and Hurricane Katrina. By the time she’s done, many of the audience members are in tears.

Smith takes on the personas of 20 characters, using mannerisms, accents, tones of voice and wardrobe tweaks to channel the essence of men, women, young, old, poor, rich. To capture them, she conducted one-on-one interviews with numerous sources and then transformed them into a 90-minute tapestry of voices. 

The play’s recent opening night drew a crowd of big names, including Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, Attorney General Eric Holder, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D).

Maybe because this is Washington, D.C., and producers can safely assume that any given audience is made up of policy wonks, academics and other “thought leaders,” Arena Stage has clearly pitched the show as more of a forum on the health care debate than as a theatrical performance.

On its website and in the play program, the theater has helpfully posted items such as “From FDR to Obama: A Brief Timeline of Healthcare Reform in America” and “From Performance to Reality: Health/Care News in Your World.” There’s even a link called “A Helping Hand: Resources in the D.C. Metro Area (How You Can Get Involved).” In addition, the theater is hosting a series of talks following Sunday matinee performances, including a few of the characters interviewed by Smith.

While it sounds churlish to diminish such earnest offerings, these extras are really only tangentially related to the substance of the show. It might be a good idea to ignore the policy wonkiness on the edges. The performance is so much more: taking on, in a meandering but meaningful way, how we handle injury, frailty, illness and dying. 

In fact, it’s a celebration of the human spirit. Perhaps the most moving monologue comes from Trudy Howell, the director of an orphanage in South Africa filled with children who know they will die of the AIDS they inherited from their mothers. Another is based on the description by the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins of athletes’ ability to embrace pain, seeing it as a sign of their toughness. “Athletes want to turn into ashes,” Jenkins — channeled through Smith — says in the play.

Playwright Eve Ensler (as interpreted by Smith) explores the denial of life as shown in an anorexic’s distorted way of thinking. “You can’t think much if you’re eating a raisin a day,” she says. “You’re not a threat to anybody if you’ve disappeared.”

But ultimately, Smith brings the talk around to death. Eduardo Bruera, a palliative care doctor, muses about the ways of death: “Not everybody dies the same way. Some people have an easy death. Some people have a very difficult death. And that should not surprise us because … some of us have a very easy life. And some of us have a very difficult life. We have a trend to confront the end of our lives the way we have confronted life events. … We’re a little bit predictable in our repertoire of coping.”

In another take, Smith channels actress Lauren Hutton talking about the way that the rich defeat death: by funding facilities that research horrible diseases like cancer.

There’s enough thought-provoking material here that audiences could take the performance in more than once and still not absorb it all. And there are certainly political references: A doctor at a charity hospital in New Orleans says she was shocked that no one was surprised when the rich people got out first during Hurricane Katrina. The character of Ruth Katz, who had taught at the Yale University School of Medicine at the same time she was a cancer patient there, talks about the university hospital telling her that they’ve lost her records. But as soon as they find out her status at the school, the records suddenly reappear. It’s a sober reminder of the ways that rank and privilege affect health care in this country.

But more powerfully, the show brings an audience back to more intimate and personal moments. As choreographer Elizabeth Streb asks, “How would you like to die?”

“Let Me Down Easy,” a production of Second Stage Theatre, will be performed at Arena Stage (1101 Sixth St. SW) through Feb. 13.

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