Let me just begin by saying that David Henderson’s performance in Theatre Raleigh’s production of Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play I Am My Own Wife is truly marvelous. It is not the first time Henderson has embraced the challenge of playing multiple characters in a one-man show. Last spring, he seamlessly created a number of diverse characters onstage in Honest Pint’s production of The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, a performance that was truly captivating. So it should be no surprise that here, once again, he unleashes his remarkable talent to tell the complicated story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transgender woman who survives the Nazis, East German Communists, and later, neo-Nazis, in sensible heels and pearls. Over the course of two acts, Henderson thoroughly inhabits Charlotte, as well as more than 30 other distinct characters. From Henderson’s mesmerizing performance to the meticulous attention to technical details to the fascinating saga, this production ranks up there with one of the best I’ve seen.
At first glance, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf seems like a harmless, eccentric, older woman who conducts charming tours of the antiquities she has collected for her museum. She is a storyteller, spinning narratives about the objects she has collected from bombed out and vacated homes, along with her own life experiences. The playwright, Doug Wright, hears about her from a friend and begins corresponding with her, eventually traveling to Germany in 1993 to record numerous interviews.
These interviews and letters reveal a compelling survivor story of Lothar Berfelde, a German boy who, through the encouragement of his lesbian aunt, becomes somewhat of a cultural hero and champion of the LGBT community. But as Wright digs deeper, Charlotte’s story becomes more complicated and disturbing. While Wright aches to portray Charlotte as a hero, identifying with her triumphs and struggles, he soon comes to the realization that Charlotte’s stories may not be 100 percent accurate
The truth seems elusive, and Wright is left to wrestle with what he wants to believe and Charlotte’s contradictions. He incorporates this struggle into the framework of the play presenting himself as a character, which elevates the narrative and brings into question the truthfulness of the stories we tell about ourselves.
Director Jesse Gephart guides the shifting scenes and non-linear episodes with a fine sense of pacing that pulls the audience into Charlotte’s story and demands intellectual engagement. He and Henderson craft a nuanced portrait of a complicated individual that raises more questions than answers about Charlotte’s motivations and even her credibility.
While Henderson expertly delineates almost three dozen characters, wrapping his tongue around various accents and tones, scenes are enhanced by Eric Collins’ superb sound design. Lighting Designer Andrew Parks expertly animates the atmosphere to signal shifts in time and place. And Chris Bernier and Tim Domack beautifully recreate Charlotte’s collection of late 19th-century furniture stacked on shelves along the back wall. The remarkable attention to these details, along with Henderson’s performance and Gephart’s well-paced staging, makes this production a truly satisfying theatrical experience and one that shouldn’t be missed.
I Am My Own Wife runs through July 21st at the Kennedy Theatre in Downtown Raleigh. For more information visit https://theatreraleigh.com/.