Let Me Down Easy
About the Production

Anna Deavere Smith’s latest production, Let Me Down Easy airs on THIRTEEN’s Great Performances Friday, January 13 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings). Originally presented at Long Wharf Theatre, the play received its New York premiere at Second Stage Theatre. The Great Performances production was recorded in February 2011 in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater in Washington, DC, launching a national tour that concluded in September.

Watch a preview:

Great Performances is a production of THIRTEEN for WNET, one of America’s most prolific and respected public media providers.

Having been credited with creating a new form of theater, to create Let Me Down Easy Smith interviewed an eclectic group of people (300 on three continents) and performs several in an evening that is funny, moving and engaging.

The title resonates on several levels reverberating with meanings of lost love, the faith that sustains people in times of difficulty, and ultimately, the end of life.

Smith, through her chameleon-like virtuosity, creates an indelible gallery of portraits, from a rodeo bull rider to a prize fighter to a New Orleans doctor during Hurricane Katrina, as well as boldface names like former Texas Governor Ann Richards, legendary cyclist Lance Armstrong, network film critic Joel Siegel, and supermodel Lauren Hutton. She performs 19 characters in the course of an hour and thirty five minutes. Their stories are alternately humorous and heart-wrenching, and often a blend of both. Building upon each other with hypnotic force, her subjects recount personal encounters with the frailty of the human body, ranging from a mere brush with mortality, coping with an uncertain future in today’s medical establishment, to confronting an end of life transition. The testimony of health care professionals adds further texture to a vivid portrayal of the cultural and societal attitudes to matters of health.

With keen observation and understated compassion, Smith – without judgment and maintaining the dignity of her subjects at all times — effortlessly submerges her own persona, and assumes her characters’ vocal and physical mannerisms with unerring accuracy.

Despite the profound poignancy of the issues at hand, Smith leavens the evening with many lighter anecdotes, some outright hilarious: choreographer Elizabeth Streb recounts how she accidentally set herself on fire as part of an elaborate birthday celebration; Smith’s own Aunt (Lorraine Colman) recalls the last (and distinctly unsentimental) words uttered by her elder sister; and when a Yale School of Medicine oncology fellow informs cancer patient Ruth Katz that the hospital has lost her records — he is dumbfounded to discover she is actually the associate dean of the medical school there. Other characters address the intensity of the will to live even in the face of dire sickness: University of Notre Dame musicologist Susan Youens rhapsodizes on the Adagio from Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major, one of over a thousand works Schubert composed before his untimely death at age 31; and while undergoing chemotherapy, Ann Richards defiantly tells of learning how to hang up the phone to preserve her precious “Chi.”

Called “the most exciting individual in American theater” by Newsweek magazine, Smith (Fires in the Mirror, Twilight: Los Angeles) turns on this occasion to tell a powerful story which points to the financial and psychological cost of care, the preciousness of life and the inevitability of our mortality.

“Even in the darkest hour, even where the crisis is the greatest, you’ll often find people who have the gift of grace, the gift of kindness, the gift of healing,” Smith observed. “Ultimately, through this play I am trying to spark a conversation that is easier, and maybe more enjoyable to have through art and entertainment than through politics.”

Let Me Down Easy was inspired by work she did at Yale School of Medicine, where she was invited as a visiting professor. Bill Moyers dedicated a full hour segment to profiling Ms. Smith and Let Me Down Easy, noting with amazement how her play transformed “a houseful of strangers” into “an intimate community.”

Throughout the evening, Smith assumes the parts of (in order):

  • James H. Cone, author, reverend, and professor, Union Theological Seminary, NYC
  • Elizabeth Streb, choreographer, Streb Dance Company, NYC
  • Brent Williams, rodeo bull rider, Idaho
  • Lance Armstrong, Tour de France Victor
  • Sally Jenkins, sports columnist, The Washington Post
  • Michael Bentt, world champion heavyweight boxer
  • Hazel Merritt, patient, Yale-New Haven Hospital
  • Lauren Hutton, supermodel
  • Ruth Katz, patient, Yale-New Haven Hospital
  • Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, physician, Charity Hospital, New Orleans
  • Dr. Phillip A. Pizzo, dean, Stanford University School of Medicine
  • Susan Youens, Musicologist, University of Notre Dame
  • Eduardo Bruera, palliative care M.D., Anderson Cancer Center
  • Ann Richards, former governor, Texas
  • Lorraine Coleman, retired teacher, Anna Deavere Smith’s aunt
  • Joel Siegel, ABC movie critic
  • Peter Gomes, reverend, Memorial Church, Harvard University
  • Trudy Howell, director, Chance Orphanage, Johannesburg
  • Matthieu Ricard, Buddhist monk, author, French translator for the Dalai Lama

NBC’s Today raved, “Run – do not walk – to see this play! Watching Anna Deavere Smith on stage is magical. One minute you are laughing, the next you are crying. It is truly brilliant and stunning.” Variety heralded the work as “a totally vital piece of theater, mixing a standup comic’s instincts with a great reporter’s keen eye.” It was named one of Entertainment Weekly’s Top 10 of 2009.

On the West Coast, the San Francisco Chronicle declared the work “extraordinary,” and added, “This is Smith at the top of her unique documentary theater form, in writing, performance, and timeliness.”

Smith has been credited with creating a new form of theater. When granted the prestigious MacArthur Award, her work was described as “a blend of theatrical art, social commentary, journalism and intimate reverie.” She has performed in film and TV as well as on stage. She currently plays Gloria Akalitus on Showtime’s hit series Nurse Jackie, and is well remembered for her role of national security advisor Nancy McNally on NBC’s The West Wing. Her major film credits include “The American President,” “Philadelphia,” and “Rachel Getting Married.”

Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles played around the U.S. and on Broadway. It received two Tony nominations, an Obie, Drama Desk Award, the New York Drama Critics Circle’s Special Citation and numerous other honors.

She produced, wrote and performed the film version of Twilight for PBS. Another of her plays, Fires in the Mirror, examined the Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn (1991), when racial tensions between black and Jewish neighbors exploded. It received an Obie Award, numerous other awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She performed the play around the U.S., in London and in Australia. The film version was also broadcast on PBS.

Let Me Down Easy – directed for the stage by theater and opera director Leonard Foglia — was directed for television by veteran Matthew Diamond (Cyrano de Bergerac, From Broadway: Fosse, Swan Lake with American Ballet Theatre, all for Great Performances, and an Oscar nominee for the 1999 documentary Dancemaker).

After its Arena Stage run, the production embarked on a national tour with stops at The Wexner Center for the Arts; Philadelphia Theatre Company; a collaborative presentation of San Diego REPertory Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, and the Vantage Theatre, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and The Broad Stage.

Great Performances is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Irene Diamond Fund, Vivian Milstein, the Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, the Starr Foundation and Joseph A. Wilson, LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust,public television viewers, and PBS. For Great Performances, Bill O’Donnell and Mitch Owgang are producers; O’Donnell is series producer; David Horn is executive producer.

  • amy levine

    peter gomes was at harvard. BAD mistake.

  • Alex

    Amy, this is the text they have above.

    Peter Gomes, reverend, Memorial Church, Harvard University

    They list him at Harvard. I don’t see the bad mistake…

  • amy levine

    I wrote this comment and I also wrote WNET and they said they would fix it, which they now have! Thank you for paying attention to my comment and thank you to them for correcting it. The friend who forwarded this to me originally is in fact a Howard graduate, but Gomes was indeed very proud of his decades of service to Harvard, where he was also a Professor.

  • lynda

    Saw the preview. Looks great.

  • ALEXANDRA LEIGON

    I love this woman!! Wish I had seen everything she has ever done! I’ll be there tonight. Posted to all my FB and Twitter friends.

  • Gibberwocky

    Saw this at the Arena. Fantastic.

  • maxi

    Superb!

  • Michael

    Watching this exceptional play and this extraordinary actor, every emotion is at play. Wow.

  • Kim

    Extraordinary production. Never out of date.

  • Mary

    Totally blew me away.

    Sorry I can’t say anything insightful or eloquent right now, I just watched this, and I am totally blown away by the wisdom in the words and the impact of the performance which filled my humanist “soul” to the brim.

    Brava. Brava. Brava, and sincere thanks, Anna Deavere Smith.

    Thank you, PBS/WNET. Thank you. I was late with my year end contribution, but I’m rectifying that right now.

  • Andrea

    This program came highly recommended to me, thank you Pat. I’m grateful for having seen Anna Deavere Smith’s performance of “Let Me Down Easy” this evening. Thank you Anna Deavere Smith for your extraordinary insight and outstanding work, thank you for touching my “soul”. Thank you, PBS/WNET for all your wonderful programming. I hope you will air this again soon.

  • JoAnn

    I only caught the tale end of this show. Will it be repeated? When? Is it still being performed live in the U.S.?

  • Rodrigo

    I took a nap today, woke up to surfing channels. . . so glad i stopped at Great Performances. . It truly was wonderful and insightful . . . . thank you Anna Deavere Smith.

  • Bill Mevers

    I missed the beginning of the program; oh how I wish I had not.Her stories, her performance has left me emotionally drained. She played me like she was playing a harp – plucking the strings, changing the tempo and leaving me in awe.

    I recognized her from her TV roles. When she was interviewed after the play, all the emotions return as I learned about her amazing skills and what she did to give birth and such life to this marvelous production.

    Thank you Anna. Thank you PBS for bringing her into my life.

  • docksidegrl

    Fabulous!!!!!! Wish I caught it all!!!! Thank you PBS!!!!

  • Marybeth

    OH,LORD!!!!!!Miss Anna, YOU ARE MAGNIFICENT!!! So-o-o timely, so-o honest, SO-O-O NEEDED TO BE SAID LOUDLY!!, and SO-O-O FAB ON THE ACTING, GIRL!!! BRAVO!!

  • Tanya

    What wonderfulness!! And they ask me why on earth would I support Public Television!! Plus I love the fact that my station has an “over night program”!! I work second shift and I don’t miss a thing! THANK YOU PBS!!

  • Mir I Am

    I too was surfing and stumbled and this and stopped in my steps. Great show want to see the whole thing again. I had thought the night was a loss for antenna tv.

  • Kathy

    Dear PBS,
    When will we be able to purchase the DVD for this program?

  • Pat

    Just by chance did I see this magnificant woman. How had I missed knowing she even existed ? I am humbled. I am mismerized and she is a National Treasure. I am rather speechless. The post interview was truly helpful as I wanted to know more about her process, background and how the concept developed. Wow she is one incredible human .

    Thank you and mpore thank yous……………….Hurrah PBS

  • Bart

    Will this be available at a later date. I missed it on the 13th.
    Thanks

  • jawbone

    Will this be available for viewing on the web? A friend doesn’t have any kind of video recorder and wasn’t home for either showing here in the NYC area — is it going to offering online?

    Thnx for any info.

  • Dr. LeClair

    Please, please, please- allow this to be for sale! There are moments when teaching medical students that frustration (from a lack of perspective demonstrated) obstructs the altruistic goals of serving our patients. To see such a distillate of the truth of our profession from our side as well as those of the patients- it restores faith that the discussion is not yet lost. How may we pass this along???

    I sincerely request any suggestions or leads to bring the performance forward to our next generation…
    clancee_6@hotmail.com

    Thank you,
    A humbled whitecoat.

  • Laura

    You can watch the full episode at http://video.pbs.org/video/2186573615
    Or go to pbs.org and navigate to video, great performances, full episodes.

    I missed the opportunity to buy the DVD through donation, and I am hoping it will become available for purchase!

  • Margot

    I would love to have a copy of the production to use in the classroom. Is the play available on DVD? If so, please let me know how to obtain it.
    Thank you so much.

  • Nancy

    Please, please re-run this program soon. I was fortunate enough to catch it, but when I told friends about it & tried to find a repeat, couldn’t. As excellently produced/performed and as timely as this show’s topic is, we need to see it several more times!

    Nancy

  • D

    I missed it! Will this be aired again soon? Or online?

  • Yvonne Hudson

    Hopeful for news of rebroadcast or DVD? Hopeful!!

  • david ernst

    Dear Yvonne,

    Thanks for your question. Currently, there is no DVD of our production of “Let Me Down Easy”. However, the full program is available to stream online. You can click on “Watch the Full Program” in the upper right hand corner of this page, or click the following link:

    http://www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/episodes/let-me-down-easy/watch-the-full-program/1236/

    Hope you find this info helpful.

  • Brian Cuffair

    I’m going to have to disagree with every comment I’ve read… I support the art, and I am not a reactionary hater of this sort of thing; however, this was horrible. Drab. And I can’t understand how people are going so gaga for it. She should stick to walk on roles as a strong, ambiguously lesbian, pant suited leader, shades of West Wing.

  • Stephanie Byrd-Harrell

    Saw this last May at Kimmel Center. Loved it. Can not forget it. Enhanced my understanding of the health debate from so many different perspectives. Have recommended to like-minded people.

  • Bryan Keller

    I regret to say, I didn’t care for this production. At all. I understand the subject BUT after sitting thru it twice just to give it a fair shake, I came away with an even more “SO What?”. I and the critics agree for a change. This was poor acting, poor vocalization, much to do about nothing. Everyone seems to be swooning over it here…Could it be the critical comments are filtered?.

    If I were to see this live (Having been forced to sit thru it all the way), I wouldv’e BOOED….Terribly waste of an opportunity.

Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2014 Educational Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.

PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.