As it turned out, Ann Talman was, indeed, her brother’s keeper – literally.
Talman – a playwright and actress who grew up in Pittsburgh – has an older brother, Woody, who has severe cerebral palsy.
And in a one-act, one-performer play running through Feb. 19 at the Pittsburgh Playhouse – Woody’s Order!, making its debut here – Talman uses superb acting skills to turn her life story into a nonfiction stage drama.
Talman’s self-penned solo play has the simplest setup: just one performer on a tiny stage, giving multi-character monologues while a screen, set up in a structure that looks like the white border of a vintage Polaroid photo. Then, a wire studded with dozens of Polaroids from Talman’s childhood with Woody winds above the stage.
Yet sometimes the beauty of a show lies in its simplicity, which doesn’t preclude depth; in fact, the simplicity can enhance a story’s poignancy.
We see in Talman the passion, the pain, the enthusiasm and the humor of a woman who grew up with a sibling who has a major disability, and when her parents die, Talman becomes his guardian. It might be difficult to follow Talman’s changing characters at first – she plays herself, Woody, and her mother and father in dialogues. But once viewers catch on to the traits of each voice – along with the unique facial expressions, especially the squinty, grinning, “Mm-hmm!” of nonverbal Woody – we can follow Talman’s characters and story.
Talman especially channels her brother, who is still alive in real life. He communicates only with facial expressions and sounds, and nods his head to say “yes” or “no.” As simple as his persona may be, Talman makes it endearing and heartwarming. She obviously adores her brother and feels a fierce sense of loyalty to him, although she feels the inevitable frustration and resentment of someone who wants to live her own life and pursue her own dreams, unencumbered by the responsibility of caring for someone.
Eventually, Talman – who went to Upper St. Clair High School – did leave to live in New York City to pursue her dream of acting, which included time on the Broadway stage. She and her brother have remained close throughout their lives, though, despite physical distance at times. Her Broadway credits include “The Little Foxes,” “The House of Blue Leaves,” “Some Americans Abroad’ and “The Woman.”
The story of Talman’s baby-boomer life with Woody begins with Woody’s “order”: asking his parents for a sibling at age 8 by pointing at Mom’s stomach and Dad’s … er, lap. Talman’s parents, and especially her mother, really struggle with caring for Woody. Talman, the dutiful daughter, struggles with the overwhelming responsibility facing her, and concern for her parents. Yet all family members also get great joy from Woody, who is intelligent and quite funny at times.
After wrapping up its run in Pittsburgh, Talman is taking Woody’s Order! to Los Angeles. Hopefully, this wonderful play will make its way around the country. I especially recommend this show for people with family members and friends who have special needs, as the show will be highly relatable and comforting.
John Shepard – an actor, director and close friend of Talman’s – directs Woody’s Order!, which is a production of The REP, a professional theater company, based at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland.
Woody’s Order! plays Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, through Feb. 19. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $10 to $29. Details: 412-392-8000 or pittsburghplayhouse.com
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Playhouse for complimentary press tickets.
Photos courtesy of John Altdorfer