One Woman, Many Voices in Let Me Down Easy at Long Wharf

By Amy J. Barry

The concept of Anna Deavere Smith's new one-woman play, Take Me Down Easy, at Long Wharf Theatre is big, ambitious, intriguing-and spotty.

Smith's first major performance in a decade, she has a unique style of using journalistic interview techniques on a variety of controversial topics, and then molding her subject's responses into a theatrical format.

Smith did this in Twilight: Los Angeles and Fires in the Mirror, both of which examine volatile issues of race and class in our culture.

In Take Me Down Easy, directed by Stephen Wadsworth, the focus is more personal: the human body in both its fragility and resiliency. The play has a strong local connection, which has been a big audience draw. It was inspired by a series of doctor and patient interviews that Smith conducted during a visiting professorship at Yale's School of Medicine.

The result of Smith's comprehensive research that took her around the globe is a more than two hour long play featuring monologues by more than 30 characters all performed by Smith-based on people she interviewed.

We hear from sports columnist Sally Jenkins, athlete Lance Armstrong, Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel, and Rwandan translator/guide Gabriel Gabiro. Writer/activists Eve Ensler and Samantha Power add their two cents. Phil Pizzo, Dean of Stanford Medical School and Angie Farmer, mother of a cancer patient join the mix, as does Ann Richards, former governor of Texas.

This is just a small sampling of the many voices in the play-and in her author's notes Smith says this represents only about 10 percent of all the material she collected!

Smith stunningly switches from one character to another to another, changing her voice and changing her jackets and shoes-although after a while this proves to be more of a distraction than an asset.

The body theme is loosely carried from one subject to another and it's fascinating to witness how one's social standing, politics, prejudices, etc., informs people's radically different responses to universal questions about life and death.

Although as individual vignettes, many of the monologues are intensely gripping and insightful, as a whole the cast of characters and variety of perspectives is too huge to hold together and becomes more disjointed as the play progresses.

This is magnified by the absence of dialogue or interaction between characters to provide tension and contrast. Although a lively set by David Rockwell, in which changing scenes are projected (i.e. the Tour de France behind Lance Armstrong) does help delineate one character from another.

The second act takes us down, and not always that easy, with topics of death and dying ranging from mass genocide to an individual's battle with cancer and we welcome the few moments of comic relief provided by some of the more eccentric characters like Yale-New Haven Hospital nephrologist Peggy Bia. Sekagya Yahaya also breaks the monologue pattern by engaging the audience directly in a Ugandan healing project with a pot with holes.

In the end one leaves the theater with many impressions, ideas, and even epiphanies. What Let Me Down Easy may lack in cohesiveness is countered by Smith's uncanny ability to shake us out of our complacency and look at the human condition, via the human body, in a new and very interesting light.

Let Me Down Easy continues at Long Wharf Theater, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, through Feb. 3. For tickets and times call the box office at 203-787-4282 or online www.longwharf.org

(appeared in Jan. 31 '08 issues of Shore Publishing Community Newspapers' Living sections)

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