One only has to see “I Am My Own Wife” to understand why Jefferson Mays won the 2004 Tony Award, among many others, for his performance in the off-Broadway play. Creating and giving voice to some 36 characters, Mays is simply amazing.
Author Doug Wright’s “I Am My Own Wife” won a 2004 Pulitzer Prize for drama and reveals Wright’s enthrallment with the life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a German transvestite caught up in the great European dramas of the 20th century. Unlike many contemporaries, von Mahlsdorf survived the Nazi regime and its replacement, the Soviet-dominated Communist nation of East Germany.
Revolving around von Mahlsdorf’s love of Thomas Edison’s phonograph, the play is a mini-synopsis of von Mahlsdorf’s life. He was born Lothar Berfelde in 1928. Slowly over the course of his lifetime, he became a she in dress, manner and mindset. He permanently changed his name and identity in 1971 to Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.
Wright learned about Charlotte after the fall of the Berlin Wall and went to the former East Germany to interview her. By now the world had come to know of her, mostly through a 1992 documentary by Rosa von Praunheim.
From some 500 pages of transcripts of his face-to-face interviews with von Mahlsdorf, Wright discovered that she was being watched by the Stasi, the secret police.
The material he gathered during those meetings from 1992 to 1994 was enough to begin his play.
“Like the greatest and most enduring characters, Charlotte is larger than life,” Wright said. “She reaches beyond the particulars of the time, place and idiosyncratic nature to embody lasting truths.”
“I Am My Own Wife” was a Page to Stage project at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2000 between Wright and director Moises Kaufman. That beginning and the play’s successful journey in New York are tributes to the Playhouse’s programs and staff, and a bonus for patrons who see the show now.
One of the main things von Mahlsdorf is known for is her preservation of history. As the Nazis began looting homes and businesses during World War II, Mahlsdorf would follow after them retrieving items such as lamps and bronzed busts, adding them to her homegrown museum. To these items she added in her own collection of phonographs and music, and what began as a hobby ultimately resulted in the preservation of part of the bourgeois German culture.
This collection would become the Grunderzeit Museum in 1960. In 1963, she resurrected a famous cabaret in the basement of the Grunderzeit Museum. In 1990, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf received Germany’s Federal Service Cross for her restoration efforts.
Dressed in a simple black dress, kerchief and a string of pearls, Jefferson Mays’ delightful portrayal of von Mahlsdorf informs us that it was Mahlsdorf’s window to the war, Hitler’s impact on humanity and the persecution of the Jews and gays that truly affected her. Using only a few of the individual antiques - a framed picture of a dog and phonograph or a small treasure box - Mays handles each item and emotionally conjures up a memory almost as priceless as the object itself. Through these objects and a soft, sing-song voice, Mays conveys Charlotte’s life.
He uses only a small change of facial expression, a slight change in physical stance or maybe even a sharp grasp of air to transition from one character to another. Some of May’s switches of characters to family members, Wright, SS officers or jail mates, are so quick and effortless he is a new person before he can take another breath.
As usual, Playhouse scenic designer Derek McLane has created an impressive set. What seems at first a mere one-room where Charlotte ponders over some of her more treasured objects at one point opens up to reveal an entire warehouse of the family’s antique furniture, gramophones, clocks and other collectibles stored neatly in the floor directly behind the stage.
Credit for this masterful production also goes to director Kaufman for expert direction that leads but never lets a heavy hand get in the way of the subtle, poignant story.
Whatever your views on the subject matter, any patron of theater owes it to himself to catch this astounding performance by Jefferson Mays.
“I Am My Own Wife” runs through Sept. 11. The Playhouse is located at 2910 La Jolla Village Drive. Call (858) 550-1010 for tickets.