Being born is the biggest crapshoot, the wheel of fortune of fate. Some babies are born with the motor running, alert and wondering. Others may have any one of a myriad of challenges. And then there is the randomness of parentage who may be rich or poor, educated or illiterate, kind or cruel.
Ann Talman’s older brother, Woody, was born with cerebral palsy. Loving parents adapted to Woody’s needs and raised him to be an intelligent, loving human being. Was it a struggle? Of course it was, in the most intense ways. The boy needed total, constant care. Woody could not nurse like other children. The term is “failure to thrive,” meaning lack of weight gain, and so feeding had to be done with great care and consistency. At age two, Woody was diagnosed as a “non-verbal, spastic quad” with little control over his body. His life expectancy was twelve.
When Woody was eight, he communicated to his parents that he was concerned about his future. What if one, or both, of his parents were to die? Who would take care of him? By repeatedly touching his mother’s tummy and then his dad’s lap, he made it known that they needed to produce another child. And they did. Martha Ann Talman was born on Friday the 13th, 1957. On the Polaroid photo taken of Ann in the hospital, her mother wrote, “Woody’s Order.”
Ann Talman is a brilliant, vivacious woman who has forged an impressive career on the Broadway stage, in film and on television. As a teenager, people often remarked about her likeness to Elizabeth Taylor in the film National Velvet. After majoring in theatre at Penn State, she went off to New York to seek her fortune. She found it in a relatively short time when she was cast in a Broadway revival of Lillian Hellman’s Little Foxes, which, serendipitously, starred Elizabeth Taylor.
In her one woman show, Woody’s Order, Ms. Talman tells the story of her life centering on her intimate, loving relationship with her handsome, challenged brother, Woody. With indefatigable verve and a sharp sense of comedy, she recreates the people of her life. She does Woody to a fare-thee-well, rendering his flailing arms, rotating head and vocabulary of communicative sounds. She shows Woody’s abundant intelligence and often ribald sense of humor, as well as his full range of emotional states.
Ms. Talman has conversations with her mother and father, each a distinct creation of a real personality. She portrays doctors and nurses, neighbors and children, and more, all with great energy and physicality. And of course, there is a tremendous emotional payoff. There is no overestimating the impact of this performance. Ms. Talman proves once again the value of intimate live theatre in a way that no recorded media can. Woody’s Order is a magnum opus given a luminous tour de force performance.
The production does not stint on values. When the house opens, the audience quickly notices that the 1950s and ‘60s home movies projected on a large screen are of Ann and Woody at various stages of their childhood. In this way, the audience is lovingly introduced to the principals before the performance begins. The audience is rapt by what they see. Soon it becomes clear that the accompanying music is cunningly coordinated with the images on screen. And dozens and dozens of Polaroid photographs, clothes-pinned to a red wire, swirl up to the ceiling. Kudos to the creative staff—scenic designer Stephanie Mayer, lighting designer Heather Ankley, sound designer Steve Shapiro, video designer Andrew J. Paul, and costume designer Joan Market.
This production, directed by John Shepard and produced by Roderick Menzies, is superbly written and performed by Ann Talman. It has heart, humor and a tremendous emotional payoff. To all who read this, see it while you can.
Woody’s Order runs through April 22 at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue in Los Angeles.