AISLE SAY San Francisco


Conceived, Written & Performed by Anna Deavere Smith
Directed by Leonard Foglia
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre in association with Arena Stage
Roda Theatre
2015 Addison St., Berkeley, CA / (510) 647-2949

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Anna Deavere Smith's "Let Me Down Easy" is both a tribute to the indomitable human spirit in the face of adversity and an indictment of the disparities of our health care system. As she did with her previous one-woman shows, "Fires in the Mirror" and "Twilight: Los Angeles," Smith interviewed hundreds of people, then distilled the words of 20 to create this 140-minute, intermissionless play. She presents their comments verbatim and recreates their accents and manners of speaking, whether male, female, black, white, young or old.

She starts with a black minister, the Rev. James H. Cone, who says the title could refer to how a person might hope his or her lover would break up, but then goes on to say that it could refer to the way that most people would prefer to die. Although his didactic manner is off-putting, his comments do pave the way for what's ahead. Among the more interesting interviewees is bicyclist Lance Armstrong, who talks about his successful battle against cancer. He doesn't mention the doping changes that have been raised against him, but the following interviewee, Sally Jenkins, Washington Post sports columnist, discusses doping and elite athletes. She makes some salient points, noting that they'll do almost anything to give their bodies a competitive edge. She also says that when they finally must leave their sport, it's like a kind of death -- the death of an identity and way of life.

Musicologist Susan Youens of the University of Notre Dame talks about how Franz Schubert's knowledge that he would die an early death from syphilis influenced his latter compositions. Then there are the feisty Ann Richards, former governor of Texas, and film critic Joel Siegel, who both talk about their ultimately unsuccessful battles against cancer. Richards points out that she was fortunate to have topnotch care. Likewise, a rodeo rider, critically injured by a bull, says he was very lucky that he happened to be taken to a military hospital, where he lost only half rather than an entire kidney and paid only $1,200 total for his care. The physical and financial outcome would have been far different if he had been taken to a civilian hospital.

It's heart-breaking to hear a nurse from a New Orleans charity hospital describe how the staff and patients were virtually abandoned by the government in the wake of Hurricane Katrina long after patients in more affluent areas were rescued. Likewise, a nurse in South Africa describes how a brave little girl dies of AIDS.

The emerging bottom line is this: If you happen to have good health insurance or if you are an "important" person, you're likely to receive better care than people who aren't so fortunate. Still, it doesn't matter if you're rich or poor, you still have to confront the death of loved ones and finally your own. It's the ultimate completion of a journey that begins at birth.

Directed by Leonard Foglia in this Second Stage Theatre production at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Smith is nothing short of brilliant in the way that she creates vivid portraits of the people she talked to. She also develops their stories well, creating a dramatic arc that ends with the tranquility of a Buddhist monk.

Ringed by five angled mirrors and furnished with a sofa, coffee table and conference table with three chairs, the set is by Riccardo Hernandez. Ann Hould-Ward's costume design starts with the barefoot Smith simply clad in black pants and a white shirt. She adds various accessories such as jackets and hats as she goes, then drops them on the stage. The lighting is by Dan Ozminkowski (based on a design by Peggy Eisenhower and Jules Fisher) with sound by Ryan Rumery and original musical elements by Joshua Redman.

Berkeley Rep has presented both of Smith's previous works, so many patrons knew they were in for a memorable experience -- so much so that the show was extended for two weeks even before opening night.

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