Boston Globe: Let Me Down Easy

Grace among a world of characters

By Louise Kennedy, Globe Staff | September 18, 2008

CAMBRIDGE - Anna Deavere Smith is characterizing her latest work, "Let Me Down Easy," as "A Play in Evolution." And that's exactly what it feels like in its American Repertory Theatre incarnation, which opened Tuesday night: a stimulating but diffuse work in progress.

Smith's best-known works take a catalyzing social event - the Crown Heights riots for "Fires in the Mirror," the aftermath of the Rodney King beating for "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992" - and dramatize it through a collage of monologues, which Smith draws from interviews and then shapes and performs. Her skills, both in listening and in acting, can create mesmerizing and evocative results: It's like watching a whole world come to life in one body.

Like those earlier works (and like the other performers who have followed in Smith's "documentary theater" footsteps), "Let Me Down Easy" uses this same technique to often powerful effect. But rather than focusing on a single event and its ramifications, here Smith has broadened her lens to take in such diverse topics as the genocide in Rwanda, Hurricane Katrina, the American health-care system, and the death of Eight Belles in the Kentucky Derby.

Smith attempts to make sense of this extremely wide range by saying that everything she's looking at here falls under the rubric of "grace," that "Let Me Down Easy" is about the fragility of bodies, the inevitability of death, and the ways in which we nevertheless find moments of transcendence despite those immovable facts. The difficulty is that almost any work of art, from Shakespeare's sonnets to Chinese brush paintings to Mark Morris's dances and on and on, could fit under that definition. What is any art, if not the triumph of the creative spirit over mortality?

That doesn't mean that Smith is wrong to be fascinated by such instances of grace, and to urge us to notice and inquire into them ourselves. But it does mean that "Let Me Down Easy," because it is about so many things, never really settles into providing deep new insights about any of them. And because Smith's collagelike technique already refracts our focus, it feels all the more important to have a central point of clarity around which all the different viewpoints can coalesce.

There are moments in this show, however, that make such criticisms feel like petty carping. Despite all the jumps from horseracing to genocide to gardening to cancer treatment - jumps that make it impossible not to ask "Where the heck is this thing going?" - Smith does, more than once, find instances of grace that can take your breath away.

Just watch her embody Ingrid Inema, a Rwandan survivor who, as a 6-year-old girl, saw a man stoned to death and is now hoping to become a doctor, or see her portray Cheryl Diaz Meyer, a pragmatic but exquisitely sensitive photojournalist, as Meyer's pictures of Iraq war victims are projected behind her. Horror and beauty, cruelty and love - Smith listens to every nuance of the human experience, and in showing us what she has heard and seen, helps us to see and hear more clearly.

In its lighter moments, too, the show finds a special kind of grace. Her evocation of choreographer Elizabeth Streb is unforgettably tough and droll as Streb recounts the time she found herself, mid-performance, accidentally set on fire; the ART audience chuckled in appreciative recognition at the mannerisms and wit of Harvard's Rev. Peter Gomes. And all I could think as she completed a scene of the late Ann Richards, the magnificently sharp-tongued Texas governor, discussing her fight with esophageal cancer, was "No, no, please don't go!"

Well. Maybe that's what Smith is after, after all.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.