Pictured Mays in I Am My Own Wife.
Playwright: Doug Wright
At: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Phone: ( 312 ) 443-3800; $20-$60
Runs through: Feb. 20
I Am My Own Wife, the Tony and Pulitzer prize-winning play, ends with an arresting image: a photograph of a small German boy at a zoo; he is sitting on a bench, between two ferocious lions, who each have a paw on the boy's legs. This ending is startling because it's so apt: I Am My Own Wife is the astonishing true tale of the man born as Lothar Berfelde, who later transformed himself into Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Mahlsdorf is described as the 'most singular, eccentric' byproduct of the Cold War. Living his life as a woman throughout brutal times, positioned between Nazism and postwar Communism ( thus the symbolism of the final image ) , Mahlsdorf's story is one of courage and, perhaps, cowardice.
Like most legends, Mahlsdorf's life story ( written by Quills playwright Doug Wright, who interviewed Mahlsdorf himself for the project in 1992, becoming fixated on her ) is controversial, fascinating, and a tangle of myth, legend, and truth that will probably never be sorted out. Mahlsdorf grew up an abused child, already identifying as female from nearly as far back as she can remember. The controversy comes in when the German government released certain documents ( the Stasi secret service files ) , which show that Mahlsdorf may not have been as innocent as she portrayed herself to Wright; the files demonstrate that she incriminated close friends in order to stay out of prison herself. But, like many individuals in extreme circumstances, she may have done what she did because she had no other choice.
Next to Mahlsdorf's story ( she eventually became the owner and proprietor of an old German mansion, stuffed to the ceilings with antiquities, including Victrolas and clocks, which became known as the Grunderzeit Museum and is gracefully reflected in Derek McLane's set ) , the most astonishing thing about I Am My Own Wife is the work of Jefferson Mays, who delivers a performance that is the kind of artistry that is ( or should be ) historic. Not only does Mays capture Mahlsdorf with depth, compassion ( quirks intact ) , but he also switches with chameleon-like efficiency to dozens of other characters. Transformations like Mays' are magic, the technical aspects of which are better left unquestioned. Thinking back on I Am My Own Wife, it seems there were many people on the stage; it's still hard to believe it was only one.
I Am My Own Wife is a peerless theatrical experience, and one that should not be missed.