Light & Verity

Medicine as theater

A one-woman show based on Yale doctors and patients.

T. Charles Erickson

T. Charles Erickson

Actress Anna Deavere Smith portrays Yale doctors and patients in a new one-woman show. View full image

Anna Deavere Smith fastens on a glittering necklace and becomes Dr. Peggy Bia, a Yale nephrologist. Bia is one of more than two dozen characters that Smith portrays in her new one-woman show, Let Me Down Easy. From the stage of New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre, Smith-Bia describes the despair her patients feel as they assimilate "the sucky deck they've been dealt": the failure of their kidneys. "I do a lot more crying in my car than I did in my younger years," she says.

The real-life Peggy Bia watched herself in Smith's play about "the resiliency and vulnerability of the human body" when it premiered in New Haven in January. The play owes a great deal to New Haven and Yale: Smith (who played the national security adviser on The West Wing) came to the medical school in 2000 as a visiting professor. After interviewing numerous doctors, patients, and others, she wrote what she called "a first draft" of a play on the doctor-patient relationship and performed it at the school.

In Let Me Down Easy, Smith incorporates some of those original New Haven interviews, but broadens her scope. Building on interviews she conducted in places ranging from New Orleans to New York and from South Africa to Rwanda, Smith portrays people coming to terms with their bodies and the bodies of others -- in health, in illness, and in death. She signals the move from character to character with a change of accent, props, or clothing, slipping into a pair of stiletto heels to become a supermodel, clipping on a massive belt buckle to play a rodeo rider. Characters include cyclist Lance Armstrong (who speaks on the drive to win); playwright Eve Ensler (on the sexually alive woman); Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel (on the hot-housing of privileged children as "privatized eugenics"); and genocide scholar Samantha Power ’92 (on the danger of shrinking "circles of identity").

One of the characters is Hazel Merritt of Connecticut, who recalls the day her daughter's dialysis went awry, showering blood on the screaming girl. In the play, Merritt asserts that she won't take her doctor's advice to begin dialysis herself.

It was Merritt's doctor -- Yale professor of internal medicine Asghar Rastegar -- who brought Smith to Yale seven years ago. He and then-chair of internal medicine Ralph Horwitz hoped Smith would spur medical students, who are often enthralled by technology, to discover the richness of their patients' stories.

Watching Let Me Down Easy, Rastegar made his own discovery. Hazel Merritt had never told him about the day her daughter's dialysis failed. He wonders if the trauma was what caused her to reject dialysis for herself. Smith, he says, was able "to get information that was maybe censored from the physician. Or physicians maybe don't cross that barrier. That's her power -- that she's able to do that."

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