“The difficulty in life is the choice.” This is from The Bending of the Bough
, a play by early pioneer of literary realism, George Moore
. The play is about a young mayor struggling to reconcile his personal interests as he tries to improve the situation for the citizens of his town. But when you read that quote on its own, you have to wonder if he was talking about the choices we make in our life or the choice to live.
Competing political interests, along with the choice, and struggle, to live, are the subject of Anna Deveare Smith
’s newest work, Let Me Down Easy
(at Second Stage
, 305 W 43rd St, until November 8). Like all her previous plays, this is a piece of documentary theater. To create her performances, Smith interviews hundreds of subjects and then builds a compelling collage of monologues from the interview transcripts. She plays all the characters herself, mimicking every verbal tick, visceral reaction and unexpected burst of emotion in her subjects. Smith started conducting interviews for Let Me Down Easy
in 2000 and first presented the show at the American Repertory Theatre
in Cambridge, MA, and then at the Long Wharf Theater
in New Haven, CT, but she has changed it substantially since those productions to address the current healthcare debate.
It is a show about the will to live, the obstacles to continuing life and the way that healthcare provides or limits our choice to live. And ultimately, isn’t that what’s really at stake in the current debate—life and death? Sure there’s a bunch of political gamesmanship that has to be played, but ultimately access to quality healthcare is about living and dying. Just think about the title of the piece, “let me down easy.” Imagine the patient lying in the hospital bed who is thinking that—tell me that I won’t be able to get what I need in the gentlest possible way, in the calmest voice possible, tell me that I will no longer be alive to see the next week or month.
It’s a political piece, as all of Smith’s works have been. In fact, Smith is now the writer-in-residence for the Center for American Progress
, a progressive public policy think tank in DC headed by former Clinton Chief of Staff Joe Podesta.
Some might roll their eyes when they think of political theater, but Smith’s style of work, which has garnered numerous prizes and a permanent rotation in thousands of school curricula across the nation, typically and thankfully avoids the didactic presentation of so much political art. Her insistence on presenting a multiplicity of perspectives forces us to hear people struggle to find the right language to verbalize their fears and assumptions. Every character is human, like us, even when we hate what they have to say. Here’s hoping that more than just the progressives turn up to hear what’s said.
(photo credit: Kirk Tuck)