Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife receives the right production at Theatre Horizon. It’s also very good, but “right” matters. Philadelphia theatergoers may know the play from the Wilma Theater’s 2005 production, which took what proved the decidedly wrong approach of using two men to perform the one-man play.
Here, Charlie DelMarcelle alone plays German transgender woman Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, along with 34 other characters. That’s important: A central aspect of Wright’s play, which won nearly every theater award imaginable in 2004, including a Tony for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize, is the schizophrenic overlap of roles.
Born Lothar Berfelde, Charlotte (1928-2002) survived World War II and the Cold War in Berlin, saving precious German Empire-era furniture and a gay bar from the chaos, turning her family mansion into the Gründerzeit Museum and relocating the bar to her basement.
But the core character is not Charlotte, though she opens the play and takes visual precedence, as DelMarcelle is costumed throughout in her black peasant dress, heavy shoes and head scarf, designed by Katherine Fritz. Rather, the core is the playwright himself. The character of Doug Wright admits struggling to dramatize Charlotte’s story until a director observed that Wright was really an authority on only one subject: His own “ongoing obsession with a remarkable character.”
To do the play justice, a production must tell Wright’s journey of discovery, and, through that, share Charlotte’s life — all while distinguishing dozens of other characters over decades and continents. It’s easy to imagine this making more sense with two actors, but produced as written, it’s an opportunity for a tour-de-force solo performance.
DelMarcelle proves he’s the man for the job. His Charlotte — charming, genuine, complex, surprisingly tough — has the soft voice of aged wisdom and a musing “mmm” expression that speaks volumes without exaggeration. He’s so convincing as Charlotte that his transformations into other characters, sans costume change, are even more impressive. There’s Wright, who interviewed Charlotte in Germany many times, as well as his Texan friend and translator, then there are personalities from his interviewee’s past: Her abusive father, the lesbian aunt who recognized Charlotte’s nature (“Nature played a joke on us,” she says) and sheltered her, a menacing member of the Stasi, and friend Alfred Kirschner, who goes to prison to protect Charlotte — or was he betrayed by her? DelMarcelle further shows off his blazing range of accents in a rat-a-tat “phantasmagoria” of international media speculation that makes a provocative case against Charlotte.
The question of Charlotte’s possible collaboration with the oppressive Stasi looms large over the second act, when Wright’s perspective shifts from awe at Charlotte’s survival to doubts about the veracity of her stories. Did Charlotte really kill her abusive father? Did she exaggerate her postwar heroics and hide the less heroic details of her history? And that’s where the drama actually climaxes: Wright’s realization of who and what Charlotte is. “I need to believe her stories as much as she does,” he confesses. But is faith enough?
I Am My Own Wife not only reveals Charlotte’s fascinating life and personality, but also Wright’s journey as a writer and gay man wrestling with the thorny issues of “truth.” Director Kathryn MacMillan’s production supports DelMarcelle’s riveting performance with understated loveliness; Maura Roche’s small white stage, surrounded by pristine white rubble, is keenly lit by David Todaro, and Larry Fowler’s sound design conjures Charlotte’s fascination with antique music recordings. Anthony Giruzzi’s props deserve praise, too, as Charlotte reveals her passion for furniture through a box of precious, pristine miniature pieces.
Appropriate: DelMarcelle’s performance feels like an exquisite jewel in a beautiful setting — done well, and done right.
Through Nov. 24, $22-$35, Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb St., Norristown, 610-283-2230, theatrehorizon.org.
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