How are you feeling? Been to the doctor lately? How’s your health insurance? Uncovered emergency bills draining your wallet and shooting your blood pressure through the stratosphere? Go to the closest hospital instead of the in-network hospital for that medical emergency, and now you’re stuck with the entire thirty-thousand-dollar bill? Welcome to health care in America.
And welcome to Let Me Down Easy, Anna Deavere Smith’s remarkable series of linked monologues that are getting a remarkably vivid and engaging performance through June 16 from Profile Theatre. Smith’s play both is and isn’t about such pertinent questions. First produced in 2008 as a solo show performed by its author, Let Me Down Easy predates Obamacare, “death panels,” skyrocketing costs on crucial medications, the relentless right-wing campaign to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and leave millions with no coverage at all, the state-by-state assault on abortion and reproductive rights, and the rising rebellion against private insurance companies and demand for single-payer health coverage.
In a political sense, then, Smith’s play is last decade’s news. And yet it still feels fresh and up-to-date, because it’s less an agitprop play about specific policies than an inquisitive investigation into people’s attitudes toward life and death and the ways we think about what a healthy life means. In one way or another each of the twenty-odd characters in Let Me Down Easy is dealing with questions of mortality. As James H. Cone, a minister, puts it in the opening monologue: “Let. Me. Down. Easy. Those are words of a broken heart.”
Which is not to suggest that the show’s a downer. There are serious, even outrageous moments aplenty, but also a lot of levity and empathy and sheer human comic cussedness. Like her groundbreaking shows Fires in the Mirror (about the Crown Heights, Brooklyn, riots in 1991) and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 (about that city’s race riots) Let Me Down Easy is created from interviews with people involved in one way or another with the issue at hand – in this case, health in America. Smith has a brilliant adeptness for capturing personality in pared-down verbatim bursts of language. The words themselves may be her characters’, but the plays are very much Smith’s: She chooses who to interview, gets them to open up, selects which parts of their statements to use, and, crucially, shapes the interviews into a show. She is the witness, and also the interpreter.
Profile’s production, which opened Saturday on the Portland Playhouse stage in Northeast Portland, is the second half of a two-show rep, joining Lisa Kron’s Well in rotating performances for the rest of the run. Both shows star the same six actors – La’Tevin Alexander, Jennifer Lanier, Michael Mendelson, Allison Mickelson, Eleanor O’Brien, Vana O’Brien – and are directed by Profile’s artistic director, Josh Hecht. Theatrically, it’s a splendid exercise in creative adaptability, and Let Me Down Easy in particular gets about as good a run for its money as you could hope for. Breaking down what once was a solo show into several parts works well, providing varying voices to the show’s multiple characters, and much of the pleasure comes from watching a good cast shift so precisely and easily from voice to voice.
Let Me Down Easy blends the voices of celebrities with those of “regular” folks, partly to reveal how health care varies according to a person’s cultural and financial standing, and it begins, intriguingly, with a look at the drive to excess among athletes and others we consider paragons of good health. Alexander is quietly superb as Michael Bentt, the short-term world heavyweight boxing champion, who after being knocked out and sent into a coma for four days emerged with no memory of the fight, no future as a fighter, and no certainty about what the rest of his life might bring. Mendelson is wryly superb as champion bicyclist Lance Armstrong, talking a self-absorbed blue streak about the interplay of his will to win (the audience chuckles in the knowledge of Armstrong’s later embroilment in a doping scandal that stripped him of his titles), his fear of failure, and his drive to overcome testicular cancer; and Lanier brings down the house as a rodeo bull rider who’s been squished, smashed, and pulverized and keeps coming back for more – and who has some harsh words for a medical system that locks many people out. Eleanor O’Brien is droll and feisty and altogether winning as Washington Post sportswriter Sally Jenkins, explaining how top-rank athletes can’t help pushing themselves: they thrive in extremes.
Other famous people pop up, too. Mickelson (who also carries the heaviest load in Kron’s Well) is a hoot as choreographer Elizabeth Streb, explaining how she accidentally lit herself on fire while doing a stunt at her partner’s birthday party, and as The Vagina Monologues playwright Eve Ensler, talking earnestly about the dangers to women of trying to stay ever-young and sex as a path to health. Vana O’Brien plays supermodel (and who came up with that concept?) Lauren Hutton, cluelessly grateful that her rich and powerful friends give her access to the best health care available (it’s not what you know, it’s who you know), and the salty Texas Governor Ann Richards, heading toward defeat against cancer with a wisecrack and as good a fight as she’s got.
But some of the most intense and telling moments come from people you’ve probably never heard of: Mendelson as a palliative care expert talking about how the culture as a whole needs to face up to the inevitability of death; Eleanor O’Brien as an overstressed worker at a charity hospital in New Orleans after the Hurricane Katrina disaster, when the patients and workers at other hospitals had long been evacuated but those in the hospital for the poor were still stuck, still abandoned, still leftovers in a cultural and economic system that just didn’t care. Sometimes the truth hurts. Sometimes it kills you. That Smith and Profile’s excellent cast are able to make powerful and pleasurable theater out of that is a minor medical miracle in itself.
Well and Let Me Down Easy end Profile’s 18-month season devoted to works by Kron and Smith. The company, which built its reputation by devoting each season to the works of a single playwright, has branched out a bit, looking for connections among writers and plays. In the fall it’ll start a two-year run of shows it’s calling “Generations,” devoted to works by the contemporary American playwrights Paula Vogel, Lynn Nottage, and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Gloria; An Octoroon). While Profile’s home space at Artists Rep is shut down for construction and renovations, the company will perform at Imago, Portland Playhouse, Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, and possibly elsewhere. Plays lined up so far include Vogel’s Indecent and The Baltimore Waltz, Nottage’s Sweat and By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, and a concert staging of Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning Ruined (in rotating rep with Brecht’s Mother Courage). Jacobs-Jenkins’ portion of the season hasn’t been announced yet.
Profile Theatre’s Let Me Do Down Easy continues through June 16 at Portland Playhouse, in rotating repertory with Lisa Kron’s Well. Ticket and schedule information for both shows here.