One-woman play lifts us up easy


In the vast wasteland of Friday-night television, PBS has inserted a rich variety of concerts. This week, there's "Let Me Down Easy," Ann Deavere's one-woman show about life and death and health care and more.  Here's the story I sent to papers:

By MIKE HUGHES

As Anna Deavere Smith crafts her shows,
one fact stands out: People are VERY different.

The latest example, “Let Me Down
Easy,” reaches many PBS stations (check local listings) Friday.
Under a broad theme – life, death, medicine and more – she
portrays such people as:

– Ruth Katz, the former associate
dean of Yale's medicine school. She even threw a big party, Smith
said. “I'm probably one of the few playwrights who's had a
character throw a party for her.”

– A few well-known people, some of
them now dead – former Gov. Anne Richards, the Rev. Peter Gomes and
film critic Joel Siegel. “Joel was telling jokes when he was almost
too frail to speak.”

– One relative. “My Aunt Lorraine
came with busloads of people from Baltimore,” Smith said. “She's
80 and they're like: 'Now I've got to put up with her talking about
she's on Broadway.'”

Or off-Broadway, a logical spot for
Smith. She's been “creating a truly unique and individual form of
theater,” said David Horn, who produces PBS' “Great
Performances.”

Smith interviews people, then portrays
some of them in plays. Some of her shows centered on a specific event
– including riots on each coast; this one is more of a concept.

The suggestion began more than a decade
ago, when the Yale medical school wanted her to create performances.
She finally began interviews in 2005, debuting “Easy” four years
later.

“I thought it was a play on the
vulnerability and the resilience of the human body,” Smith said.
“Then (director) Mike Nichols came to see it and said it was about
kindness. I translated that into 'grace.'”

From patients to a New Orleans doctor
during Hurricane Katrina, her characters show grace under pressure. A
prime example is Brent Williams, a rodeo bull-rider she met at an
Idaho wedding.

“He walked in the room and looked
like a million bucks – sort of Montgomery Clift, all banged up,”
Smith said “And I couldn't take my eyes off him.”

He was, she decided, her opposite. “He
didn't got to a lot of school. He's a completely physical person. He
gets banged up. He's proud of his injuries; I'm terrified of getting
hurt.”

Smith showed him her world. “I took
him to my apartment, which is a loft” in New York City's Tribeca.

Here was a successful actress – a
regular on “Nurse Jackie” and “West Wing” – showing him her
home. His response: “Uhh, it's just one room.”

– “Let Me Down Easy”

– 9-11 p.m. Friday, under the “Great
Performances” banner

– Many PBS stations (check local
listings)

 

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