BWW Reviews: Berkeley Rep's LET ME DOWN EASY is Soul Searching, Provocative and Entertaining
Even before previews began, Berkeley Repertory Theater found itself in the exceptional position of having to add performances to the run of Let Me Down Easy. Word of mouth is a powerful thing and word had it that playwright, actress and documentarian Anna Deavere Smith's one woman show was as good as it gets.
The buzz was right. Smith has created a soul-searching, provocative and entertaining work that pulls from real life in order to create a powerful portfolio filled with stories about bodies, life and the way we handle illness and dying in this country. Playing now through July 10th, Let Me Down Easy bears witness to battles with illness, shares hard truths about healthcare and, when death is inevitable, talks about who gets let down easy and who does not. It will make you think, laugh and cry and it might even change the way you look at your life.
That's quite a thing to say about a show that started out as some 300 hundred interviews conducted by Smith over the past seven years. Combing the country and two other continents for voices to share, she chose a fascinating mix of athletes, celebrities, theologians, doctors and writers - as well as a Buddhist monk and a diabetic mother among others. One of the final voices that Smith brings to life is that of Trudy Howell, the director of an orphanage in South Africa who provides comfort to adolescent girls dying of AIDS.
Smith bases her portraits of the rich, the famous and the obscure on verbatim excerpts from her time spent with them. On the stage she's a chameleon, shape-shifting between her subjects, swiftly picking up colorful phrasing, regional accents and mannerisms then just as quickly discarding them for others as she takes on the next person's story.
As she does so she also sloughs off accompanying pieces of clothing, hats or eye glasses leaving them scattered across the stage; a visual tribute to the people she's personified.
With the juxtaposition of these varied voices Smith slowly yet inexorably draws her audience into the heart of the healthcare debate at the level of real people with real bodies. (Receiving scant attention is the role that racism plays in the debate, though classism surely is tackled.) Through humor, pathos and absolute honesty a stunning, though subtle, indictment of privilege begins to emerge.
World-class cyclist Lance Armstrong speaks causally about putting together his team of doctors while slouching on the couch scratching his thigh. "Everybody involved was hand-picked and analyzed," he says, the final victory over cancer seemingly never in doubt.
Rolling a joint, supermodel Lauren Hutton talks about how Revlon mogul Charles Revson opened doors to the best doctors in New York for her. "The best always know the best," she says with a shrug, periodically stopping to smile for the camera flashes that go off during her interview.
Like Armstrong and Hutton, former governor of Texas Ann Richards (who has since passed away) can also afford the best of the best when it comes to her healthcare but she has an awareness of the privilege. "I have a lot of insurance," she drawls while buttering her toast. "I'm just so lucky."
Stetson wearing, beer guzzlin' bull rider Brent Williams is lucky for a different reason. He carries on like a convert after he receives top-notch medical care at a military hospital - all for a flat rate. "Flat rate, didn't matter, if I, you know, went to the ICU, didn't matter if they did a CAT scans, or whatever they did to me.... And I, we need to go to a deal like that."
Not so fortunate is diabetic hospital patient Hazel Merritt (whose daughter died unnecessarily due to poor care) or the patients of Charity Hospital in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Dr. Kiersta Kurtz-Burke was unprepared for the way the poor under her care were abandoned by the government so that rich patients could be rescued.
"I'm privileged. This is the first time that I have ever been abandoned, by my government. But it wasn't the first time for the nurses or the other people that worked at Charity or for my patients at Charity Hospital....They knew that the patients in the private hospitals had private helicopters and it wasn't a shock to people. And the fact that it wasn't a shock to people was so shocking to me."
Tender-hearted Trudy Howell, director of a South African orphanage, is under no such delusions. She knows that the children in her care have all been abandoned and they will all die of AIDS. She strives to make the end peaceful though and sits with them when they die.
The backdrop for this powerful play is Riccardo Hernandez's monochromatic set design. He confronts the audience with five, full panel mirrors that line the back perimeter of the stage - mirrors that seem to quietly compel those watching to reflect on the widening gap between privilege and poverty and perhaps also to face their own places of privilege.
Harvard minister Peter Gomes is asked to step in when death is near and doctors have already moved on. "One of the most important things that you can do is to be with someone when they die. My work is to make the movement from this one to the next one as graceful and as easy as possible."
Let Me Down Easy makes you ponder the notion of what this country and the world would look like if we started sharing that grace and good work well before the poor were on their deathbeds. Word of mouth is a power thing. Come see this show. Spread the word.