I’m not ordinarily one to enjoy the new fad in one-man or one-woman “plays.” On the commercial stage, they are largely either ego-driven or economically-driven. You can feel good about yourself, pack in an audience, and you don’t have to pay a cast. I come away saying “Just write it down, and I’ll read it, I promise.” Or “So where’s the conflict?” BUT I’ve just been made into a bit of a drama snob and a liar. Joan and I drove up to Washington yesterday to see Anna Deveare Smith do her newest piece, Let Me Down Easy, at the Arena Stage. I have to say, there may have only been one body in front of us on stage, but there was a full cast of twenty spell-binding people up there. They were speaking truths we might not want to hear, bringing us to shameless tears and boisterous laughter, and conveying the kind of dramatic tension in which audience heads seem to nod or shake in unison. So completely did she embody all 20 of them, that Ms. Deveare Smith did not herself appear onstage until the curtain calls, amid the detritus of the vanished souls she had created for us. … I am a convert! The process is complete. It began last fall, when we watched her do a segment on PBS’ Bill Moyers Journal, and grew when we couldn’t get tickets shortly afterwards to the Second Stage production in New York. It began to blossom when I began hearing the glowing reports of Cry of the Mountain, a one-woman play of interviews about mountaintop mining, compiled and performed by by Addy Horan, a local Charlottesville actor. It ended with yesterday’s matinee. Okay. I admit! I’m convinced. Plays can be made powerful and effective with but a single actor.
Who is this marvelous woman, Anna Deveare Smith, so full of strength and exciting theatrical technique, and with such an infectious social conscience? Many probably remember her vaguely as Jeb Bartlett’s National Security Advisor on NBC’s wonderful West Wing series a few years back. But she is so much more: an actress, a playwright, an author, a reporter, a dreamer, an interviewer. “Her goal has been to learn as much about America as she can, by interviewing individual Americans from diverse backgrounds and putting herself in other people’s words the way you might think of putting yourself in another person’s shoes.” (Program Cast Bio) And does she ever! She conducted hundreds of interviews for this play. She has recreated onstage, incorporated in her body and voice, the exact words of twenty of them, black and white, young and old, male and female. Among them are olympic cyclist Lance Armstrong, former Texas governor Ann Richards, movie critic Joel Siegel, Vagina Monologues playwright Eve Ensler, and supermodel Loren Hutton. And each, in his or her own way, contributes to our growing insight into one of the most critical debates of our time: the state of healthcare in America. It’s not a pretty sight. But it’s one we need to stop ignoring, politicizing, and denying. This play gives us the tools to begin doing that. These are real people, faced with medical and bureaucratic incompetency, with insurance issues, with our failure to deal with end-of-life palliative care without raising the specter of death squads (one of the more idiotic political responses of the day). Together, they mirror our thoughts and feelings right back at us, complete with the ironies, platitudes, shallow prejudices and worn-out, nonsensical, political doggerel we hide behind in the struggle for real-world solutions.
Yes, it amounts to a theatrical editorial on health care, but the operative word is theatrical. It’s the best kind of entertainment: that which informs us about ourselves. Anna Deveare Smith is not preaching ideas here; she’s exposing real people, and leaving it to us to develop the ideas and whatever calls to action we feel as a result. She’s been on her own path for a long time: In addition to her acting and writing skills, she is a MacArthur Scholar and a senior mentor at the Aspen Institute, which fosters values-based leadership and encourages individuals to reflect on the ideals and ideas that define a good society. With her help, they are pursuing an Initiative in Biomedical Science and Society, seeking to help chart the wisest course to health reform.
But back to the play. The Arena is kicking off a four-city tour of this production of Let Me Down Easy, conceived, written and performed by Anna Deveare Smith, directed by Leonard Foglia, and developed originally at New York’s Second Stage. It will now be at the Arena Stage in Washington DC through February 13. (Box Office: (202) 488-3300) It will then continue on to New York, Philadelphia and San Diego. Wherever you can find it, go see it!
And BY THE WAY: If you haven’t been to the Arena Stage lately, it’s a must. It just reopened this past October, back on Maine Avenue, in the magnificent Mead Center for American Theater, which incorporates the entire original Fichandler Arena building and then some. This is an architectural paean to the theatre right there in the nation’s capital. Okay, so maybe they didn’t need to spend all those millions on concrete and glass, but nonetheless it has turned the place into a major Washington landmark, and that is no small feat in a city of landmarks. It reopened with of all things, that most traditional of american musicals, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma. I wasn’t writing this blog then, but I can’t resist telling you that if you missed that one, you missed one of the finest musical productions I’ve ever seen. Chalk it up! And if you value the experience of sitting in the dark in the theatre and what it can do to you, and for you, and with you, then you won’t want to miss much at the Arena. I’ve seen a lot of plays there … some maybe not so great, it’s true, as in any theater. But I’ve been going there on and off since I was about 14, I’d guess, when they were a tiny little joint up on New York Ave & 9th, and I plan to see a lot more. With the multiplicity of wonderful existing smaller theaters, the impressive new theater for Arlington’s Signature Theater, and the recent expansion of Kahn’s Shakespeare Theatre Company into the exciting Sidney Harman Hall, Washington threatens to become a major theatre city. And I’m almost forced to admit that maybe the arts aren’t in such bad shape after all.