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Let Me Down Easy

Wednesday, December 30, 2009 Leave a Comment

Two nights ago I saw Anna Deveare Smith's play about health care, Let Me Down Easy. I was deeply moved by the play, and haven't stopped thinking about it, as it touched on many of the ideas we've been discussing on this blog.

First, on Presence: It absolutely mattered that this was a play and not a movie. Throughout the play, Anna's characters reacted to their unseen interviewer; and at other times, the characters solicited input directly from the audience; so that subtly over the course of the play, we became the interviewer, directly participating in the action. The set design captured this brilliantly through column-like mirrors that created a reflecting ampitheatre.

Second, on Diversity: In thinking of how the audience matters, this particular night's audience was notably diverse in both race and age. And while it's stupid to assume that Audience Member X vocally responded to a particular moment simply because of their age or race, very different responses were happening all around me; and that made me notice things in the play I might have missed. Which is to say that a truly diverse audience is one of truly diverse perceptions; and that having multiple perceptions strengthens the quantum Darwinism of live theatre. I hope to come back to this as a way of exploring diversity as a uniquely theatrical need, rather than simply a general obligation.

Third, on Imaginative Empathy: One aspect of Imaginative Empathy that is particularly important to me is its power to shock us with the wonder of a single life, and makes us keenly feel the size of its loss. Anna accomplishes more than that - in the singular insight of the New Yorker review:

Smith is doing more than opening up a much needed discussion about the dying and those who minister to them. The purpose of the enterprise, we realize, is for the playwright herself to learn how to die.
And because we have been subtly led to become the interviewer, we are also learning how to die. (And who wrote those beautiful words, New Yorker? The review is unsigned!) I found myself turning over each word of the end of the play like a rough tool in my hand, as if somehow I could use them to build an edifice of comfort or courage against my end.

Fourth, on theatre as an engine of democracy: The play's great political insight is that health care is not only about public options and triggers; it is also about how we deal (or don't) with suffering and death in our culture. At the heart of the play are two interview excerpts from physician Kiersta Kurtz-Burke and Dean of Stanford's School of Medicine, Phil Puzzo. The first makes clear the cost of treating health care as a commodity; the second exposes one of the reasons our culture chooses to treat it as a commodity - an unwillingness to consider death as the inevitable end of life. Whatever your feelings on the intricacies of the health care bill, facing the human costs of health care failure in our country, and acknowledging the emotional roots of that failure, is one of the unique gifts of this play, and something theatre is uniquely able to do.

It was an inspiring evening, and even though I agree with Alexis Soloski's smart take on the play's failings, what matters about this production overwhelms the flaws. Let Me Down Easy reminds us that while the answer to life's question is death, the answer to death's question is live.

And as I am a juxtaposition junkie, I leave you with this YouTube pitch from the Manhattan Beach Project, a coalition of scientists hoping to end aging by 2029...which may or may not have an impact on the health care debate.


  • Sabina E. said:  

    this play sounds amazing. From how you have described the play's ability to interact with the audience, this is what modern theatre should be about.

  • August Schulenburg said:  

    Sabina (yes I clicked through to your blog and website and am looking forward to learning more about you and your work), it was a great night. I'd see it again if it wasn't sold out! The use of props was great, too - character by character, the stage grew more littered with cups, cigarettes, jackets, and all the other detritus of their lives, so that even after each character was discarded, something of them remained - a great way of incarnating one of the questions of the show.

  • Anonymous said:  

    True, Ms. Smith has collected some input on the state of the current system. She includes contributions from a rodeo bull rider with a cynical view of doctors and a medical school dean who argues that prime consideration must be given to end-of-life care. (Yep, it’s that freighted grandma issue.) But just as often she seeks answers to more open-ended questions about the power of the human body, its susceptibility to disease, and the divide between spirit and flesh that poses mysteries no one can really elucidate. I am a college sophomore with a dual major in Physics and Mathematics @ University of California, Santa Barbara. By the way, i came across these excellent flash cards. Its also a great initiative by the FunnelBrain team. Amazing!!