Woody's Order! - Theatre Review

by Joshua Kahn

An overly-long montage of fascinating home videos from the 1950s introduces us to the Talman clan. Even though we don't yet know their names, a couple things stick out immediately: first is the serene, peaceful nature of that stereotypically quaint nuclear family lifestyle. Second is that the son of the family is stricken with a severe case of Cerebral Palsy.

That son is Woody Talman, the titular orderer of Woody's Order!, the one-woman show by Ann Talman making its west coast premiere at Ensemble Studio Theatre LA. The "order" comes from Talman family lore. Woody, needing someone to care for him in the event his loving parents were no longer able to, "ordered" them to have another child. Enter younger sister, Ann. The show documents Ann's life grappling with this job she gamely accepted as a youth before realizing just how difficult a task it might be.

Cerebral Palsy might seem like hard thing to cope with, especially back in the 50s and 60s before a wider social acceptance of people with disabilities and before Medicaid, but the Talman family is supportive and loving and works through it. The opening stretches of the play (dominated by a hyperactive, adolescent Ann) while sweet, may lull the audience into thinking this will be a simple, treacly tale about the importance of family. Before long, however, tragedy strikes and the broader arc of the story begins to take shape.

What emerges from the shaky beginnings is a thematically rich piece bound to resonate with anyone who's had to care for aging parents, or struggle to start a career, or make big decisions before thinking about the consequences. As Ann flits about the stage (with as much energy as is implied by the cyclone of polaroid pictures that makes up the set), she takes us on a whirlwind tour of decades of personal and professional ups-and-downs. From Broadway success and a doting husband, to abrupt deaths and failed auditions. The running through-line is, of course, Ann fulfilling her role as Woody's Order. She's his way into the world with an almost supernatural sibling bond. They help each other grow in ways equally touching and surprising.

  Ann as a character is a compelling creation. This show could have very easily turned into smug self-congratulating for all her hard-work (she revels in reliving her successes, whether it be her Broadway appearance as Elizabeth Taylor's daughter or her episode of Seinfeld), but she and director John Shepard keep those aspects toned down. Admirably, they're not afraid to explore Ann's seemingly few flaws. In fact, there's something interestingly meta in a play written and starring an actress about the life experience that required her to put her theatrical career on hold. And as a performer, she is a delight. Ann plays many characters over the course of an hour and a half. In one hand, some of them can veer into two-dimensional territory (like her genteel southern mother or her New York tough-guy husband Bruce), but that is a somewhat necessary shorthand for any one-person show. On the other hand, her portrayal of her gruff, US Steel-working father is touching and nuanced, as is her interpretation of Woody himself. It can be a bit jarring whenever an able-bodied performer acts as someone with a disability, but Talman's love and unwavering dedication to her brother's inner truth is palpable.

Woody's Order! makes its case for its existence as a play, though the subject matter (reliant as it is on family history, home movies, etc) might lend itself better to documentary film. Coincidentally, or perhaps deliberately, a short documentary about Woody and Ann with the same title is premiering this month at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

I'm thankful that Ann has found a way to make her story relatable to a wider audience. She is able to weave her personal frustrations into stirring character moments, craftily skirting the pitfall of using solo, autobiographical theatre as a therapist's office. Instead, she provides an experience that manages to be both sweeping and intimate.

  Woody's Order! runs through April 22. Tickets here.

Posted By Joshua Kahn on April 17, 2017 03:35 pm | Permalink