Anna Deavere Smith at Arena Stage (“I’ll take the soup”)

My wife tells me that, almost twenty years ago, we saw Anna Deavere Smith’s one woman show “Fires in the Mirror”, based on African-American/Hasidic conflict in Brooklyn, and that I didn’t care for it that much. I have no recollection at all, but now having seen her current one woman show, “Let Me Down Easy”, I believe that I wouldn’t have cared for her earlier show.

Not that Ms. Smith is an unappealing person. Quite the contrary. And I would certainly give her give her an A for memorization. This is a very wordy 90 minute show. But, by and large, it just didn’t grab me.

The show is, I believe, based on a series of interviews conducted by Smith over a period of time, both with patients (some well known, some not) and health care providers over a period of years. Smith plays the part of twenty such interviewees, who are fully identified and. Whether the script is taken directly from the interviews or whether she altered it is not clear to me. The better known interviewees include former Governor Ann Richards of Texas, Lance Armstrong, model Lauren Hutton, writer Eve Ensler and critic Joel Siegel. She also portrayed a number of physicians and two medical school deans and Peter Gomes, the minister of Harvard’s Memorial Church.

I wish that I could report that the interviews were profound, and contained profound truths, but I don’t think they did. I thought most of them rather empty. The biggest exceptions were her portrayal of Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, a physician at New Orleans’ Charity Hospital, a hospital forgotten by the governmental evacuators at the time of Hurricane Katrina, and Notre Dame musicologist Susan Youens, who spoke about Schubert having written so much of his music knowing he would die, and potentially go insane or be paralyzed from syphilis, and how this is reflected in much of his composition.

The Arena Stage program, which I read before the performance, says: “In ‘Let Me Down Easy’, Anna Deavere Smith explores the state of medical care and the availability and efficacy of medical insurance in the modern-day America. Her exploration mirrors various arguments faced by American presidents and politicians since the 18th century……”
If this is what this show reflected, I missed it entirely. What I saw was a series of anecdotal sketches of people who are sick or hurt, and people who treat them.

I should say that Ms. Smith did receive a standing ovation and that there was some audience reaction when some of the characters described their illnesses and treatments (occasional “Oh no”s from the audience).

Oh yes, the “Ill take the soup”. It’s a punch line of an old, old joke, as you may know, told by (of course) Joel Siegel.

You know the story. A beautiful woman knocks on the door of 90+ year old George Burns. He opens it, looks at her, and she says to him, “I am her to give you super sex”. He thinks a minute, puffs on his cigar, and responds, “I’ll take the soup.”


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