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Deavere Smith mastered 23 characters

Anna Deavere Smith gave a performance worthy of 23 actresses over the weekend.

The actress, famous from roles in “The West Wing” and “Nurse Jackie,” performed her docudrama “Let Me Down Easy,” directed by Leonard Foglia, at the Lincoln Theatre.

Using a unique style of theater that she has perfected, Smith interviewed real people prior to drafting the drama, and then performed their words verbatim, portraying each person with remarkable finesse. The show’s focus is on the resilience of the human body and spirit, and each new person gives a fresh, and often funny or poignant, view on the topic.

Simply watching Smith recreate each of these characters was a real treat. The transitions between each character were flawless. Going from playing a hyper-feminist, effusive playwright to a tough-as-nails cowboy with a Southern accent who recounts serious injuries he endured at a rodeo, in only a moment is no easy task, but Smith did it with notable grace.  

Smith’s conceit never wore out its welcome as she moved around the set designed by Ricardo Hernandez, which consisted of a couch, a few tables, chairs and mirrors on the back wall that occasionally doubled as TV screens. Her movement around the stage made each character appear to inhabit their own natural space, allowing the audience to really connect to each story and distinguish between them.

Likely the most amazing thing about the whole evening was how immersed Smith became in each of her characters. The audience witnessed all 23 portrayed onstage during the performance, including movie critic Joel Siegel, supermodel Lauren Hutton and former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, and I never for a moment thought that one of them was Anna Deavere Smith. She boldly inhabits each of her characters, and imitates difficult accents and mannerisms flawlessly.

Smith’s fearlessness in her portrayals is what makes the whole show as great as it is. She commits so fully to every choice she makes that the audience can’t help but follow her down whatever path she leads them.

Now, this kind of show might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Sure, there is only one performer and it does have some (though relatively few) slow moments. However, the work that Smith is doing is more than just fun — it’s important.

I didn’t expect to enjoy the show as much as they did. However, as soon as the show began, Smith’s commanding presence completely entranced me. This will certainly be remembered as one of my most memorable theater experiences, and the things that Smith has made me think about will be far longer lasting than a simple post-show conversation with fellow audience members. Columbus was extremely lucky to host Smith and her show, and I’m glad I was able to see it.

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