Stage review: Ann Talman stars in her one-woman show 'Woody's Order'
February 7, 2017 12:00 AM
Actress Ann Talman, who grew up in Upper St. Clair, relates her life story in the one-woman show "Woody's Order," a presentation of The REP at Pittsburgh Playhouse.
By Sharon Eberson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Woody’s Order!” was a title bestowed on Ann Talman the day she was born and, 60 years later, the title of her one-woman show, a theatrical chronicle of the fierce love and hardships she has endured as her brother’s keeper.
Woody Talman has cerebral palsy and is a nonverbal quadriplegic whose mind is not compromised by the disease. At age 8, it occurred to him that if anything happened to his parents, he would need a sibling to take care of him. According to family lore, he began what his father, a former Army colonel, dubbed “the campaign,” and nine months later, Martha Ann Talman was born.
Where: The Rep at Pittsburgh Playhouse’s Studio Theatre, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland.
When: Through Feb. 19. 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: $24-$29, $15 seniors and $10 students; 412-392-8000 or www.pittsburghplayhouse.com.
For her autobiographical story, Ms. Talman, a veteran of stage and screen by way of Upper St. Clair, conjures powerful memories of each member of her family: her father, Woods G. Talman, a mine safety specialist who spent nearly 40 years with U.S. Steel; her strict Southern mother, Martha; and, of course, her beloved Woody, “together now and always.”
The quirks of individual personalities shine through as her voice jumps from her mother’s drawl to her brother’s telltale grunts. Her parents’ and her own struggles with addiction are presented only in flashes — a devastating phone call, a revealing conversation.
“Woody’s Order!,” under the direction of John Shepard, emerges not as a blow-by-blow account, but as a nostalgic journey through a life spent mostly in the service of others. Ms. Talman doesn’t dwell on the most painful events and instead seems to be closing the door on any lingering animosities.
Woody, whose life expectancy was 12 and who now is 68, is the central figure in his sister’s story, inspiring everyone in his orbit. As he grew, he lived mostly in nursing homes in Alabama and Allentown, coming home to Upper St. Clair for holidays and summers. For young Ann, life was better — meaning her parents fought less and were more attentive — when Woody was around.
Eventually, as she gained a career on Broadway and in Hollywood, her life careened between the coasts and the nursing homes that cared for her brother and, later, her father in Pittsburgh.
The play begins with Ms. Talman as a preschooler with a shrieky voice and nonstop chatter. Her mother at first appears to be among the world’s most patient women, at one point merely stating, “I have one child who can’t talk and another who can’t stop.” Her mother also notes that she’s a budding actress, and no wonder. Ann and Woody were ever in front of their mom’s camera.
The audience in Pittsburgh Playhouse’s intimate Studio Theatre is welcomed with 1960s pop hits playing as photos and videos of the Talman family are projected on a square screen, framed like a Polaroid. The nostalgic video has been pieced together by Andrew J. Paul, and Stephanie-Mayer Staley’s minimalist set design has Polaroids strung across the stage and in a swirl that gives the space dynamism and some room for Ms. Talman to play. The only props are a cushion and a soda shop stool.
The videos and stills paint a portrait of a younger sister who can’t get enough of being with her brother, crawling all over him while he’s strapped into a wheelchair, or pushing him around like a doll in a carriage.
Ms. Talman, who as she grew was often told she looked like Elizabeth Taylor in “National Velvet,” attended Penn State University and eventually moved to New York to try to make it as an actress. Success came swiftly — she was cast as Ms. Taylor’s daughter in “The Little Foxes,” both of their Broadway debuts. Their working relationship grew into a friendship, which of course included a visit to the theater from Woody. When she reached down to embrace him, his head bobbed “right into that famous cleavage,” Ms. Talman recalls.
An interesting dynamic comes into play with Ms. Talman’s first marriage to the actor Bruce MacVittie. He also became devoted to helping with Woody’s care, until the toll on Ms. Talman apparently became too much for them.
When finally she has a screaming meltdown in front of her brother, it’s almost a relief. So matter-of-factly has she presented so many harrowing details. What we see in “Woody’s Order!” mostly is the strength and love it takes to keep a family together in the face of a child and a brother who has special needs 24/7.
The Ann Talman who has returned to her hometown to tell her life story seems to have finally found balance in her life, so that she can do for herself without compromising her role as her brother’s keeper.
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