Let Me Down Easy
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.