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Single-actor shows involving a number of characters necessarily call attention to the performer’s physicality: her ability to reset her posture, tempo, mannerisms, and cadence as often as the illusion demands. Anna Deavere Smith—sole proprietor of Let Me Down Easy, the three-year-old piece imported to reopen Arena’s Kreeger Theater—long ago established her bona fides as a mimic, having built one-woman-shows around two riots (Crown Heights, Brooklyn 1991 and Los Angeles 1992) and earning two Drama Desk awards, two Tony nominations, and a Pulitzer nom for her pains.
This time, she’s prodding the margins of the health care debate, a subject that comes unhurriedly into focus over a series of 20 monologues she’s sewn together from firsthand interviews with the varied cast of boxers, bullriders, doctors, dancers, monks, and med school administrators she embodies here. In a somber moment when Jon Stewart is suddenly no longer the only pundit calling for talking heads to “take it down a notch for America,” the appeal of Smith’s calm, humane approach to a contentious issue is undeniable: There’s nothing polemical here, just interesting people filtering their stories of life-in-a-body through Smith, each of them introduced by a projected name tag. (Or filtering their stories through another person filtering them through Smith: Laconic Lance Armstrong, scratching where he used to have cancer, gives way to caffeinated Washington Post sports writer Sally Jenkins observing that “athletes are about exhausting themselves. You know they’re not happy until they’re absolutely used up.”)
The monologues are frequently moving, surprising, profound, or all of the above, and if they never quite cohere into a satisfying whole, you get the sense that’s because the artist isn’t done thinking about this and when the show ends, doesn’t want you to be, either. Curiously, bigwigs from the medical profession seem to have the least to offer on the what-it-all-means tip. A doctor from New Orleans’ Charity Hospital, confronted with the reality that Hurricane Katrina finally put to lie her conviction she could give her impoverished patients care as sound as patients in private hospitals get, has the most compelling view from inside. But it’s the public figures working far afield of their usual rhetorical ground—former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, back when she was living with cancer, and TV film critic Joel Siegel, when he was dying of it (they passed on in 2006 and 2007, respectively)—who contribute the moments that feel the most immortal. As Smith moves from one identity to the next, the few props she uses pile up at her feet, a nice visual metaphor that as long as we’ve all got bodies, we’ve all got baggage.