It’s been nearly 20 years since Anna Deavere Smith brought her first incendiary one-woman show to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. The acclaimed playwright-performer has returned with a new work, “Let Me Down Easy,” and it’s clear she’s lost none of her fire or theatrical flair.
Smith has always done her best work exploring hot-button issues. Her earlier shows — “Fires in the Mirror,” about the Crown Heights race riots, and “Twilight: Los Angeles,” on the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict — turned those issues into riveting theater.
“Let Me Down Easy,” which opened Wednesday in Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, tackles bigger, even more uncomfortable topics: death, illness and health care.
Written and performed by Smith, and directed by Leonard Foglia on a sleek mirrored set by Riccardo Hernandez, the results are personal, provocative, deeply affecting and often surprisingly funny.
Smith, who conducted more than 300 interviews for the show, portrays 20 characters — doctors, patients and celebrities — using their own words to shape a fluid series of scenes. A phenomenal actress, she performs them verbatim, with the pauses, repetitions, regional accents and unique figures of speech intact.
Some are undeniably somber. A doctor muses on how hard it is — and how much time it takes — to tell patients they’re dying. The director of a South African orphanage tells how she prepares children with AIDS for death.
Others seem designed to make the audience squirm: surgery without anesthesia, a dialysis treatment gone horribly awry.
Smith intersperses these with scenes taking a lighter tone. Texas governor Ann Richards, wisecracking through her interview, seems too vibrant to be dying of cancer.
Film critic Joel Siegel tells “old man jokes.” Musicologist Susan Youens ponders Schubert’s genius “under the sign of death.” Playwright Eve Ensler draws hilarious connections between capitalism and women’s sexuality.
Still, as the show progresses, an unsettling picture emerges. A New Orleans doctor toils through the dark post-Katrina days, waiting for aid that never arrives. A patient is told her chart is “missing” — until she reveals she’s the hospital’s top administrator. Actress Lauren Hutton gushes about her contract with Revlon, which gave her access to “the best doctors.” Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong blithely praises his top medical team.
Hope arrives with people you’ve never heard of: a minister, a Buddhist monk and Smith’s own aunt, whose childhood memory of being warmed by her mother yields a luminous scene.
Here, “Let Me Down Easy” suggests that the link between body and soul is something that words will never fully express.
Let Me Down Easy
Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes July 10
Tickets: $17 to $93
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org