Tour de force from Anna Deavere Smith

Amid all the screaming, exaggerating and fear-mongering that passes for serious debate on health care in this country, it's hard sometimes to hear the people facing life-and-death questions every day. Anna Deavere Smith, the exceptional Baltimore-born actress and playwright, set out several years ago to listen to some of them.

Using the words verbatim from interviews with more than 300 people, including quite a few celebrities, Smith fashioned an unusual solo theatrical vehicle called "Let Me Down Easy."

The show, a Second Stage Theatre production presented by Arena Stage, finds Smith giving a tour-de-force performance that involves portraying 20 men and women, right down to each national and regional accent, tic and speech pattern.

Smith is a most accomplished mimic. She gets under the skin of her subjects, so that she essentially disappears, from the moment the lights go up to the moment they go down. No introduction, no epilogue, no let's-pause-to-reflect stuff. Just a succession of intimate portraits (names of the interviewees are projected to help you keep track).

Performed without intermission, the play, directed by Leonard Foglia and given a sleek set by Riccardo Hernandez, doesn't seem overly concerned with structure or arc. There's a random feel to the placement of segments, which aren't uniformly absorbing or even firmly connected to the overriding themes. Some paring and tightening wouldn't hurt, but there are substantial rewards.

Hot-button issues dealing with hospitals and insurance are pushed along the way, but this is not so much a political piece as it is a humanistic one. It's about what we share and what makes us different.

Matters of race and class are raised, along with gender. The latter gets a particularly animated and funny workout through the words of Eve Ensler, author of "The Vagina Monologues," who takes aim at absurdly thin fashion models: "You can't think much if you're eating a raisin a day." A lot of time is spent hearing from and about athletes (Lance Armstrong and Michael Bentt make appearances), over-emphasizing how their lives can be adversely affected when their prowess wanes.

Through all of this, Smith is a marvel of versatility and engagement. An assistant periodically hands her little props or articles of clothing that help the actress turn seamlessly into the next character.

As the late Ann Richards, the colorful governor of Texas, Smith sets off particularly potent sparks. The voice likeness is uncanny, as is the way the actress burrows into the personality of the woman who faced cancer as if it were just another pompous politician to be taken down a peg or two.

Among the most affecting moments are those spent in the company of Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, a physician at Charity Hospital in New Orleans who recalls how her staff and patients were neglected after Hurricane Katrina; the doctor's nervous habit of toying with the side of her mouth seems to symbolize her distaste at telling the story.

And as Joel Siegel, the movie critic who died in 2007, Smith is likewise touching, telling jokes about growing old and reflecting on the idea of being "let down easy" when it's time to die. "I love the imagery," Siegel says. "I see a hand putting me in the ground and very gently moving away."

Smith finds room for family, too. She impersonates her aunt in Baltimore, Lorraine Coleman, who recalls warming her cold hands as a child in her mother's folded arms, a passage as powerful as any in this work. In that sweet moment, the actress seems to bring the entire theater into a safe, comforting embrace.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"Let Me Down Easy" continues through Feb. 13 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., S.W., Washington. Call 202-488-3300 or go to arenastage.org.

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