Plays: Let Me Down Easy by Anna Deavere Smith; Mercy Strain by Michael Milligan. At: American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St. Tickets: 773-409-4125; www.atcweb.org; $43-$48. Runs through: Oct. 18
American Theater Company ( ATC ) collectively bills Let Me Down Easy and Mercy Strain as The Healthcare Plays. As important as health care is, and as much a hot-button political topic, the last thing I'd want to see is a pair of plays about health care. What? You've never been in the hospital or known someone dear who was? You've never hassled with an insurance company?
But don't worry. These two superbly staged and acted one-person plays have little to do with health care, and ATC shouldn't bill them as such. What they do concern is how we face death and dying, a point specifically made in the first scene of Let Me Down Easy, a title which references Bettye LaVette's mid-1960s soul hit. Both works are deeply humane and passionate but touch only briefly or indirectly on healthcare. It's not the main issue of either play, which are separate productions performed in repertory, not as a single event.
In Let Me Down Easy, author Anna Deavere Smith follows her usual documentary style of recording interviews with a number of real people, then editing the texts into a dramatic form to be performed by a single actor playing each person in succession, male and female, young and old. The actor is Usman Ally in an astonishing tour de force performance, shaped and guided by director Bonnie Metzgar. In the course of 105 minutes, he plays the famousLance Armstrong, late Texas Gov. Ann Richards, supermodel Lauren Huttonand various less-celebrated healthcare workers, hospital patients and clergymen.
Smith uncovers their attitudes towards mortality, disease and ill-health ( not necessarily because they are ill or dying themselves ) and what emerges is a vibrant cross-section of concern, dedication, courage, care, anger, love, intelligence, humor and a little faithin short, the very finest qualities that make us human. The beauty of the writing and of Ally's performance brought me near tears several times, as the play called up memories of those whose deaths are among my intimate experiences.
Mercy Strain is no less brilliantly actedand ferociously actedby its author, Michael Milligan ( directed by Tom Oppenheim ), but it's a whole other thing. Entirely fictional, it tells of a hard-working blue-collar guy caught in every possible horror of both the housing bubble and insurance/healthcare bureaucracy as his wife struggles with cancer. Subprime mortgage, cancelled insurance, infection from hospitalizationyou name it and it happens. But his ultimate choice to help his wife end her life has nothing to do with all that; she could have been dying even if the system hadn't fucked them so mercilessly. Because of that, Mercy Strain often sounds like a political diatribe despite the care Milligan takes as author and actor in creating a very real character.