In the last year or so, Berkeley Repertory Theatre has offered an instructive survey of the solo show. Last summer, as part of the Fireworks festival, local favorite Dan Hoyle offered two of his pieces, both recounting his transformative travels. In that same festival, John Leguizamo went back to the well of autobiography for a high-energy, primarily comic show that ended up on Broadway.
Earlier this year, Mike Daisey, whom many would deem the reigning master of the monologue, offered two of his trenchant, highly charged pieces of theatrical journalism/activism.
And now we have Anna Deavere Smith returning after a too-long absence from Bay Area stages. More than any of these other solo performers, Smith raises the form to a fine art. She has the instincts and drive of a journalist, the performance style of a skilled thespian and the soul of a poet striving for grace.
Smith has said that Let Me Down Easy, which opened Wednesday in Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, is “a great treasure hunt; I’m searching for examples of grace that I can share with the audience.”
She finds that grace and shares it. Let Me Down Easy fascinates, compels and ultimately moves us as Smith gives voice to bodies and minds involved in life-and-death struggles.
The dialogue of the show is taken verbatim from interviews Smith conducted with doctors, thinkers, patients, spiritual leaders and celebrities. Director Leonard Foglia has helped her shape the monologues into a show that is quite different from the last two shows she brought to the Bay Area (Fires in the Mirror about violence between blacks and Jews in Crown Heights and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 about the Rodney King race riots).
While those shows revolved around very specific incidents, Let Me Down Easy meanders mindfully through a seemingly unrelated assortment of people as it builds a portrait of a nation at odds with dying and a medical system and government ill equipped to deal with the truly ill (especially if the ailing are poor).
Politics certainly plays a big part in many of the monologues, but this is a show more about the heart and mind, which is why it’s ultimately so moving. You leave the theater feeling nourished and provoked.
Though there are some familiar names in Smith’s collection — Lance Armstrong talks about how being competitive helps in races and in his defeat of cancer; ailing film critic Joel Siegel provides humor laced with a solid punch; writer/performer Eve Ensler of The Vagina Monologues fame practically gets into Tina Turner’s vagina and comes across as a brilliant neurotic.
But the most powerful words come from ordinary people like the doctor at a charity hospital in New Orleans that was practically ignored after the Hurricane Katrina disaster knocked out its power and water. We also hear from a woman in a South African orphanage where AIDS devastates her young charges, and it’s heartbreaking.
When Smith becomes former Texas Governor Ann Richards, the stage practically explodes with energy. Though battling cancer, Richards is (not unlike Smith) a force of nature as she explains how she’s had to re-focus her energy – conserve her chi as she describes it.
That people represented in the play – like Richards and Siegel – are no longer on the planet only makes their presence and their words and Smith’s evocation of them all the more potent.
The set by Riccardo Hernandez, with its semi-circular configuration of large mirrors, creates a sort of crucible in which Smith ignites flames of varying sizes and lets the flicker before gracefully allowing them to fade, one into the next.
For each character, she employs some little bit of costume (by Ann Hould-Ward or prop and then leaves it behind, so when she comes out to take her bow, she’s able to point to each “person” and offer her thanks for allowing their words and her body to share the stage.
For a work of art that deals so matter-of-factly with death, Let Me Down Easy, with its treasures of grace, is remarkably uplifting.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Anna Deavere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy continues through July 10 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $17-$93. Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.