When Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman show “Let Me Down Easy” opened at Second Stage Theater in 2009, there was no more timely play — and now that, as she announced today, the script is available from Dramatists Play Service, it’s still timely, despite passage of the Affordable Health Care Act (“Obamacare”) in the interim.
That’s not because the characters discuss health care policy (although some of them do), or delve into the particulars of the continuing debate, nor because they advocate for a saner health care system, although many of them do, at least indirectly. But this is no polemic, no stage version of Michael Moore’s “Sicko.”
Rather, it is because, if you listen closely, you will gain a clearer understanding of how Americans’ attitudes — towards health, towards their bodies, and especially towards death — seem to help explain why America stands out, and not in a good way. Nobody expects to die in America. Doctors rarely tell their patients that there is nothing more they can do for them. “That’s a cultural phenomenon that doesn’t exist…around the world,” says Phil Pizzo, the dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine. “I mean you’ve traveled the world, Anna, and you know how people talk about death and dying in other societies. It’s different than we do here.” When Lance Armstrong survived cancer, it changed his attitude towards athletic competition: He no longer wanted just to win the Tour de France; he wanted to avoid the failure of losing it. The motivation to conquer his disease had been the fear of failure, “cause failure’s death. And so I took that into cycling,” he told Smith…. and she tells us.
Seeing death as a failure that can be avoided is a common attitude among many of the 20 people she offered up to the audience, assuming their manner and their voice and some suggestion of what they wore when she interviewed them in order to present their words verbatim. Sports columnist Sally Jenkins observes that the public wants its sports champs to be immortal, to achieve “timeless perfection. And it makes them uncomfortable to watch athletes grow old. I mean athletes are us.” Writer Eve Ensler observes: “We are all forever young here.” Supermodel Lauren Hutton sounds most grateful about her successful career because it meant that she could be the patient of “world-class doctors,” the doctors referred to her by her wealthy cosmetic-heir boss who donated heavily to medical institutions. “I think most very rich guys want to live forever. And they give money to that purpose.”
Anna Deavere Smith, who is best known for her one-woman shows about race riots in Crown Heights (“Fires in the Mirror”) and Los Angeles (“Twilight”) — but is probably also recognizable for her roles on television (“Nurse Jackie,” where she played a hospital administrator, and “The West Wing”) and the movies (“Philadelphia”) — is said to have spent eight years interviewing 300 people across the country and around the world. The people she selected for the stage, whatever else they are — dancers, athletes, physicians, ministers, teachers, patients — are mostly storytellers. The stories they tell are personal, moving, amusing, shocking. A doctor in Charity Hospital in New Orleans is shocked that the patients in all the private hospitals were evacuated after Hurricane Katrina, but none of the poor patients treated in her hospital…and she is more shocked that nobody else is shocked. The discrepancy between the care for the rich and the poor is one of several themes easily discernible in “Let Me Down Easy.” But the power of this play lies not in the themes but in the moments. There is Ann Richards, outspoken former governor of Texas, laughing (but deadly serious) about the need to preserve her Chi, her life force, in the face of illness. There is Joel Siegel, ABC movie critic, telling hilariously corny jokes, but he tells them with a video camera projecting his face onto a screen at the back of the stage, with the clear implication that his illness has all but paralyzed him. It takes a moment to remember, this is not actually Joel Siegel, but one of the most gifted theatrical presences in America. “Art should take what is complex and render it simply,” Anna Deavere Smith has written. That’s what she’s done in “Let Me Down Easy.”