THEATER REVIEW: “Nurse Jackie” co-star Anna Deavere Smith is stellar in “Let Me Down Easy”

Better hurry if you want to see astonishing solo performer Anna Deavere Smith live onstage. She performs “Let Me Down Easy” through May 15 at San Diego Repertory’s Lyceum Theatre.

The piece, a co-production with La Jolla Playhouse and Vantage Theatre, showcases Smith’s trademark delivery, an extraordinary combination of journalism, social commentary and theater.

The general topics of “Let Me Down Easy” are illness, death and the human grace to endure, with comments along the way about health care and its cost. Smith portrays 20 of the 300 people she interviewed, some famous, some unknown to the general public.

Smith is a gifted mimic; “Let Me Down Easy” shows that she is meticulous in her research. Surrounded on a spare stage with four full-length but tilted mirrors, we can see every move, every nuance and gesture, large or small. Close your eyes and you can even “see” Ann Richards or Lance Armstrong, both represented here.

Rodeo bull rider Brent Williams, stomped by a bull and taken to a military hospital, where he lost only half a kidney and was even more impressed with the price: a “flat rate of $1,200” for his entire hospital stay.

Playwright and anti-violence activist Eve Ensler, relentless promoter of and speculator about sex (mostly who’s having how much), notes the importance of nutrition to a healthy life with this comment about anorexia nervosa: “You can’t think much if you’re eating a raisin a day.”

This is balanced by the most affecting piece: Dr. Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, an intern at Charity Hospital in New Orleans at the time of Katrina, who was horrified at the callous treatment her resident (several levels above her) gave these poor patients. But she was impressed at their stoicism and resilience. They knew nobody would come to get them, she says, “but for so many, it was just one more thing.”

Notre Dame musicologist Dr. Susan Youens talks about the intimations of death in Franz Schubert’s late works (he died of syphilis just shy of his 32nd birthday).

The second part deals more with the resilience of the spirit in the face of physical debility. Former Texas governor Ann Richards, dealing with esophageal cancer, sometimes told callers, “I can’t talk to you right now. You’re using up my chi” (energy).

Trudy Howell, director of the Chance Orphanage in Johannesburg, counsels “don’t leave them in the dark”; the Rev. Peter Gomes, of Harvard’s Memorial Church, says one of the most important things you can do is to be with someone when they die.

Smith was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her previous “Fires In The Mirror” and received two Tony nominations for her “Twilight: Los Angeles” (about the aftermath of the Rodney King riots). TV fans will recognize her from her co-starring role on “Nurse Jackie.”

A curious amalgam of humor and pathos, tragedy and spunkiness, Smith inhabits her characters with rare thoroughness, using gestures, stance, verbal quirks and attitude to make her impressions come alive. The New York Times said it best; they called her “the ultimate impressionist: she does people’s souls.”

Don’t miss this rare theatrical opportunity.

The details

“Let Me Down Easy” plays through May 15 at San Diego Repertory Theatre in Horton Plaza.

Wednesday and Sunday at 7 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.

For tickets, call (619) 544-1000 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.