“Let Me Down Easy” blends the political with pathos

When Anna Deavere Smith walks into a room, you shut up and listen. Not due to any force, but only out of sheer seduction. Physically, she intimidates and enthralls with her command of the stage. Emotionally, she wrests control over both our tears and our laughter. And, intellectually, there is hardly a parallel for her seamless blend of both the political and the psychological. As an actress, playwright and professor, Anna Deavere Smith is a lot of things. And, in her latest conception, “Let Me Down Easy,” she is ten plus people. 20 to be precise.

Yes, that’s right. All by herself. From the indefatigable cyclist Lance Armstrong to the overtly sexual, “Vagina Monologues” writer Eve Ensler, Anna Deavere Smith embodies them all with spellbinding accuracy. For the last 20 years, Smith has been captivating audiences with her unique brand of “documentary theater.”

It’s a winning formula whereby Smith interviews various people, from the highest caliber of celebrity to the lowest rungs of society, memorizes their responses and performs them, unabashedly, as a series of monologues grounded in a single theme. For “Let Me Down Easy,” the subject at hands is our universal fate — death.

With nothing more than minimal furniture and three imposing mirrors, Smith weaves her way through the murky territories of salvation, redemption, health care reform, the works of Franz Schubert and the natural sibling of death — life. Despite the dour subject matter, there’s no shortage of vibrancy in the performances Smith dexterously effects. Almost as if possessed by some magical charm, she seamlessly carries herself from the wild gesticulations of Reverend James H. Cone or the southern sophistication of former Texas governor Ann Richards all while the audience oscillates between tears and laughter.

Smith’s Lance Armstrong triggers chuckles with her (his?) Matthew McConaughey drawl and humble charisma. But, only minutes later, New Orleans’ Charity Hospital physician, Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, draws tears (including mine) with her narrative of misery and political ineptitude during Hurricane Katrina.

“Let Me Down Easy” doesn’t let one off fret-free as the title would suggest. It’s a dense masterpiece that provokes and prods with questions concerning the efficacy of American politics, the nature of American identity and how these two may shape our conceptions of life and death. Like Smith herself, whose confidence as an actress and writer is at tip-top form here, the characters in “Let Me Down Easy” all display a kind of resilience and optimism, a lightness amidst the dark gloom of death.