Anna Deavere Smith is a tremendously versatile actress, as fans of her extensive television, film and theater work can attest. She has the ability to imbue her roles with importance, so no matter what she plays you can't help but pay attention to her. Now Smith has turned her knack for inventing credible characters into a one-woman show called "Let Me Down Easy," playing at Arena Stage. The script presents 20 impressions of individuals, drawn from more than 300 interviews Smith conducted worldwide.

Smith begins "Let Me Down Easy" with a scenario in which she plays James H. Cone, author and professor at New York's Union Theological Seminary. As she defines the concept of being "let down easy," Smith sets the scene for a play that will touch on America's health care system and the doctors and clergy who minister to the sick. But her real target is the resilience of those who are caught in the role of patient or caregiver and how they cope with the notion of illness itself.

Smith's characters are utterly different from one another. The nine men and 11 women are young, middle-aged and old. They represent various social and economic classes. Some are famous; some are not. In a production directed smoothly by Leonard Foglia, Smith shows us a supermodel one minute and focuses on a nurse as she cares for an AIDS patient in a South African orphanage the next.

'Let Me Down Easy'
» Where: Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW
» When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Sunday; 8 p.m. Thursday to Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Noon matinees Jan. 12, 26 and Feb. 1
» Info: 202-488-3300, tickets start at $40,

One of the most intriguing themes of "Let Me Down Easy" is the way athletes deal with pain and how their competitive spirit allows them to embrace it. Smith offers portraits of extreme dancer Elizabeth Streb catching on fire and of Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong discussing his refusal to give in to cancer.

Because Smith is as good a writer as she is an actress, there is a lot of humor in the piece. There's a funny scenario in which Ann Richards, the feisty former Texas governor, riffs about her "chi." And writer and activist Eve Ensler is entertaining on the subject of sexually empowered women.

The final impression of "Let Me Down Easy" is not that it's a play in which 20 characters discuss health and life in an abstract manner. Instead, it's a gathering in which those people actually appear and offer their spirited thoughts, thanks to the ingenuity and talent of Anna Deavere Smith.