“Every woman has a one-woman show in her,” says Oprah Winfrey in a recent issue of her mothership magazine, O.
The one in Ann Talman is a 90-minute autobiographical monologue that reveals the life-sucking exertion and life-affirming devotion that defined the unconditional loving of and caring for Woody – her nonverbal, quadriplegic, cerebral palsied older brother – for most of their lives.
“Woody’s Order!” is an especially personal journey to be taken on, packed with heart-wrenching self-disclosures that tell of brave but broken parents, unrealized aspirations, and “rescue dreams” where a sleeping Ann’s subconscious would create haunting life-or-death scenarios that required her to either save Woody or herself. She would always, in reality and in slumber, opt for Woody.
This journey is made even more personal by the actress in the production being the playwright behind it. An immediate authenticity arises when Talman’s authorial voice speaks directly to the audience. And with a bare stage, save for a video screen showing home movies and a twisting ribbon of polaroid family photos running the length of the stage, Talman and her story are the focus of our undivided attention.
Also, an unparalleled immediacy is generated by her virtuosic first-person storytelling.
Talman, an accomplished performer with Broadway credits, has the dexterity to become every character in her life’s story. She captures the spastic movements and emotive vocalizations of her bright and playful brother, the starched tone of her military-groomed father, the temperament of her no-nonsense Southern mother, the hyperactive nature of her younger self, and others. She does this with succinct economy, convincing detail and the confidence of having performed this show in New York, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and on other stages since its creation in 2017.
And yet, despite the courage associated with exposing her soul to strangers and the theatrical pleasures we derive from the pain of her experiences, this engaging production is rarely enthralling.
Perhaps it’s the wicked pacing established by director John Shepard, who is tasked with fitting a lifetime adventure into a one-act framework. The speed with which Talman shifts from one story to the next and the abruptness of Marcus Dana and Steve Shapiro’s lighting and sound cues, respectively, affords little time for an audience to register, reflect and respond.
Perhaps it’s the thin layer of protective veneer that coats Talman’s storytelling, which necessarily keeps her from losing herself in her emotions so she can get through this play but which also keeps audience members from thoroughly losing themselves in theirs.
Perhaps it’s the sense that this pre-fabricated production was brought in to occupy a performance slot while co-artistic director and frequent director Sean Derry is on the road with a re-production of last winter’s “Boogieban.” It does not take long to realize that “Woody’s Order!” is made to order but not made of the same cloth as plays by Steven Dietz, Johnna Adams, Keith Huff, Matt Pelfrey and others who help define none too fragile’s distinctive brand.
One-person performances can be interesting, intimate and moving affairs, and “Woody’s Order!” is certainly that. But it is not quite what one would expect, or hope for, in the inaugural production in none too fragile’s new home in the former performance space of Coach House Theater.
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2019 Ohio Society of Professional Journalists best critic.