Every illness is unique, and every person faces illness in his or her own way.
Anna Deveare Smith, in her one-woman Broadway show “Let Me Down Easy,” slips into the persona of twenty individuals who have faced an aspect of illness or death. In ninety minutes, Deveare Smith takes the audience on an existential scavenger hunt, allowing us to observe, and occasionally pluck, insights from this gathering of individuals.
These individuals do not run the full spectrum of humanity. A large proportion are public figures–former Texas Governor Ann Richards, CBS movie critic Joel Siegel, playwright Eve Ensler, model Lauren Hutton, cyclist Lance Armstrong. A number are prominent academics from Yale, Stanford, and M.D, Anderson Cancer Center. This doesn’t dilute the power or validity of the experiences, but it does skew the journey.
Deveare Smith apparently interviewed more than 300 people world-wide, asking questions about illness, mortality, and resilience. For the show, she uses verbatim dialogue from the interviews. The performances are filled with verbal habits, facial tics, accents, and gestures. She includes real-time props and interruptions–ringing phones, eating lunch, sipping wine.
The vignettes are short, and there are times I wished for more depth. But it was entrancing, and often unsettling, to be pulled so deeply yet so briefly into different people’s worlds.
Joel Seigel talked about what a wimp he’d always been as a nerdy, Jewish kid–the last kid picked for every sports team. He’d never seen himself as strong, but cancer suddenly brought out a hitherto unknown toughness in him. “Where did I get this toughness?” he asks, rhetorically. “Probably from 3000 years of being kicked around in Europe.”
Governor Richards assumes she can make a day into a good day by simply deciding it to be so. A musicologist derives fortitude by understanding Schubert’s later works, the ones he wrote as he knew his incurable syphilis would kill slowly him, as it did at age 31. A rodeo cowboy shrugs nonchalantly as he describes being gored by a bull, and then getting patched up quickly so that he could return to the ring.
The piece that stayed with me the longest, however, was the physician from Charity Hospital in New Orleans. As a physician in a public hospital in New York City–Bellevue Hospital–I felt an instant kinship with her, and I was prepared to hear of our common experiences.
Initially her experiences did seem similar to mine, working with “underserved” patients, determined to make the care as good as that seen in a private hospital. By and large, I have the sense that we accomplish this at Bellevue and she seemed to feel the same about Charity.
But Hurricane Katrina punctured a hole in this patina, and in Deveare Smith’s rendering of Dr. Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, we see the rawest ulceration of our society, worse than anything I’d ever experienced or ever imagined.
When the flood first occurs, both the patients and the nurses of Charity Hospital–nearly all African-American–immediately assume that the levees had been deliberately breached, that a conscious decision was made to flood the Ninth Ward so that other more affluent areas of New Orleans would be spared.
Dr. Kurtz-Burke finds this ludicrous; there is nothing in her experiential understanding of society that could countenance such conspiracy-type thinking. When the patients and nurses matter-of-factly assume that the inhabitants of Charity Hospital will not be rescued, Dr. Kurtz-Burke finds this similarly preposterous. She takes it on herself to reassure her patients and staff.
But then the days stretch on with temperatures over 100 degrees, no electricity, no food, no water. Rounds are conducted by flashlight. Ventilators are kept running by generator. The other hospitals are evacuated; the private patients are rescued by helicopter. But Charity remains abandoned in the dark for six days.
Alongside Dr. Kurtz-Burke, our souls are deflated. Everyone is not treated equally. Our basic assumptions about our society simply aren’t true. It’s a hell of a reality-check.
“Let Me Down Easy” is sobering, but it isn’t necessarily depressing (with the exception of the Katrina story). Anna Deveare Smith shows us the humanity in these human beings, draws us close to their worlds for a taste of their lives. We leave the theater feeling our eyes opened and the colors in our souls more vivid.
Danielle Ofri is an internal medicine physician and author of What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine.