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In her latest piece of documentary theater, playwright/performer Anne Deavere Smith gets more ambitious with the topic she tackles. Fire in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles both deal with the aftermath of race riots, but Let Me Down Easy, her latest one-woman show, considers nothing less than the west’s approach to human mortality. That does not mean, however, that Smith has morbid curiosity or that her play is a downer. Quite the contrary, Let Me Down Easy is life-affirming, full of energy, and sometimes very funny.  Aided by Smith’s uniquely commanding performance, her latest is not so much a play as is a profound act of empathy.

First, let me elaborate on what I mean by “documentary theater,” an idea that combines performance with journalism.  Smith prepares by traveling the country to interview people who have a thing or two to say about health and what our bodies can endure. Then Smith takes the interview excerpts and reproduces them on stage. The result is an impressive array of accents and mannerisms. Unlike most interviewers (myself included), she does not shy away from inarticulate moments, and incorporates every pause or stutter into her vignettes. When she portrays Lance Armstrong, her most famous subject, she ably conveys his inner drive and aversion to analysis (as Armstrong, Smith gripes, “Aw, Anna, you know how much I hate interviews!”). Other excerpts, such as interviews with a university dean and a rodeo cowboy, highlight Smith’s ease with sharp comedic timing. Still, she’s at her best when she captures the nuance of everyday conversation and adds lyricism that transforms impression into art.

The pace and thematic material of Let Me Down Easy resembles the arc of a person’s life. After a de-facto invocation that sets the play’s tone, Smith interviews several athletes, and this relatively youthful section contains thoughts on our corporeal limits. Armstrong’s interview occurs here, as does one with Michael Bentt, a former heavyweight champion who discusses the peak of his boxing career with wistful resignation. It is here where the focus shifts from athletes to how we handle the end of our lives, with more attention paid to cancer survivors. Now the excerpts are tenderer and, sometimes, quietly defiant. Smith looks at how we handle disease with grace and dignity, and as the play discusses the end of life, a potent political element emerges. While her subjects never mention Obamacare directly, there are heartfelt, serious criticisms of America’s healthcare system. Interviewees discuss the problem on a systemic level, but the most convincing is when a New Orleans doctor talks about how Charity Hospital dealt with Hurricane Katrina. For a play brimming with candor, the doctor has the most viscerally personal, regrettable things to say about our government’s capacity for apathy.

Always barefoot yet constantly changing characters, Smith’s chameleon-like performance is astonishing. Unlike most forms of mimicry, her performance is not meant for laughs. She instead uses herself a vessel for these insightful snapshots. There are minimal costume changes, yet Smith can ably embody a supermodel and, moments later, become a former Texas governor who does not suffer fools gladly. The variety of interviewees/attitudes highlight what we share is more important than what makes us different; their similarities are not an extension of Smith’s acting, but of what makes us human. This point is brought home in the final interview, where a monk offers a potent metaphor for the human soul that, believer or not, has a simplicity that’s near-impossible to refute. Let Me Down Easy is a triumph.

Let Me Down Easy is playing at Arena Stage until February 13th. Buy tickets here!