Stage preview: Actress-writer Ann Talman comes to grips with her purpose in life
February 2, 2017 12:00 AM
Photo by John Altdorfer
Ann and Woody Talman.
By Sharon Eberson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
You could say Ann Talman has been working on her one-woman show, “Woody’s Order!,” since birth. “Or you could say before birth, actually,” said the actress known for roles on “Seinfeld,” “General Hospital” and as Elizabeth Taylor’s daughter in Broadway’s “The Little Foxes.”
Ms. Talman, who grew up in Upper St. Clair, came into the world with a preordained purpose, courtesy of her brother, Woody Talman, now 68, who was born with cerebral palsy and has lived as a nonverbal quadriplegic with a sharp mind and wit.
Where: The Rep at Pittsburgh Playhouse’s Studio Theatre, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland.
When: Today (preview) through Feb. 19. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays.
Tickets: $24-$29, $15 seniors and $10 students; 412-392-8000 or www.pittsburghplayhouse.com.
When he was 8, the family was living in West Virginia and his mother had to go to Pittsburgh for back surgery. While she was away, he realized that things could go badly for an only child if anything happened to his parents.
His solution: Get a sibling, and quick.
“The story goes like this,” Ms. Talman said by phone on Monday. “He began pointing to my mother’s belly and my father’s lap, and giggling. He was on a mission. When I was born, there was a black and white Polaroid taken of me, and my mother wrote ‘Woody’s order’ on the picture.”
Ms. Talman, born in 1957 to be her brother’s keeper, tells of her life in that role and also finding her own way in “Woody’s Order!,” premiering Friday at The Rep, the Point Park University professional company, at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.
Woody today is frail and lives as he has most of his adult life, in a facility in Bethlehem, Pa. Soon after Ann’s birth, the Talman family moved to Upper St. Clair, where their neighbor, Pirates broadcaster Bob Prince, was one of the many Pittsburghers who reached out to Woody, making arrangements for the sports-loving boy to attend Pirates games at Forbes Field.
For Ms. Talman, being “Woody’s order” was the stuff of family legend and a daily reality.
“My mother would always say, ‘You are your brother’s keeper,’ and I embraced it. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. When you are age 3 to 6, it’s like having a real-life doll. I would ask, ‘Can I feed him?’”
She watched as her parents fought for inclusion and mainstreaming in the 1950s, when such things were not seen as rights for those with disabilities. Ms. Talman looks back in amazement at what her parents in “this all-American baby-booming family” were trying to do. Of course, it wasn’t always easy. “There were sacrifices for all of us. There were cracks in the seams,” she said.
In the early 1980s, Woody became one of the first people to get a DynaVox, a speech-generating device created as a Carnegie Mellon University student project for nonverbal people, and suddenly Woody had a voice. Before that, he communicated mostly through a version of 20 questions that his family devised.
Even today, “Sometimes 20 questions is a faster way for us to communicate,” Ms. Talman said.
Without giving away too much of her story, Ms. Talman was forced to “live up to the myth” at age 20 and truly become her brother’s keeper. “It was really hard. Woody and I have been a team for life, now and always, and the play is the story of how we got to where we are and this very surprising rite of passage.”
Woody has spent much of his life at nursing homes in Allentown and Bethlehem, plus several years in his native Birmingham, Ala. Ms. Talman attended Penn State before heading to New York and living out her acting dreams. While watching out for her brother’s needs, Ms. Talman has most recently resided in New York and Virginia, where her husband is an economics professor and now a visiting instructor at the University of Pittsburgh.
Most people recognize the actress for the 1992 “Seinfeld” episode “The Good Samaritan,” in which her character had an affair with George. Her career makes it into “Woody’s Order!,” too.
Ms. Talman also employs the hours of film her mother used to document their family life together. A video starts playing 20 minutes before the show — you get to know Ann and Woody as you settle into your seat. She promises that this world-premiere play, directed by John Shepard (“August: Osage County” and more for The Rep), is a Pittsburgh-centric story, recalling trips with Woody to ballgames, Kennywood and the zoo.
And it is a very personal story of how one family coped with a difficult situation through love and determination.
What makes it universal, Ms. Talman said, is that “it’s the story of how you come to grips with being assigned something that monumental from birth and finding your own destiny.”
She found her place in life could be several places — on a stage, in front of a camera or as her brother’s keeper.
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960. Twitter; @SEberson_pg.
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