She is polite and soft-spoken. Almost nun-like. With her black boxy dress, orthopedic shoes and head scarf — plus a string of pearls, the only carefree nod to ornamentation — she moves with a determined, contemplative air. When she asks a visitor for a small donation for the museum she’s spent her life building, it is with a demure nod and a slight bow, as if the mere mention of money detracts from the greater glory of preserving history.
But make no mistake. Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf is not a pushover. There is steel within.
From our first meeting with the central character in the beautifully staged and acted production of “I Am My Own Wife” from StageWorks Fresno, it’s clear Charlotte is a survivor. In the hands of Terry Lewis, who gives the most riveting performance I’ve seen from him in numerous local theater outings, and director J. Daniel Herring, whose careful and deft touch is evident throughout this well crafted production, a perplexing and entrancing character comes to life in a rich, textured portrayal. The challenge for Lewis doesn’t stop with Charlotte, however. In this one-person show — which calls for a male actor to play a famous 20th Century transvestite — Lewis portrays all the characters, more than 40, in a tale that gently nudges us toward a deeper understanding not only of an interesting historical figure but also the nature of history itself.
Along with Charlotte, who was born in Nazi Germany as Lothar Befelde, the other pivotal character in “My Own Wife” is the playwright, Doug Wright. (He won the Pulitzer Prize for the play.) As an unabashed “Charlotte fan” who in the 1990s began a series of interviews with the LGBT icon, Wright was prepared to write a glowing, heroic account of Charlotte’s life. But while in the process of doing his research, some disturbing information about Charlotte came to light. Wright sat on the script for many years, unsure of how to proceed. But he eventually had a breakthrough: He would write himself into the story.
And in that regard Wright provided a subtle counterbalance to the myths that so often mark our “historical” accounts of real lives. The ambiguous nature of Charlotte’s alleged actions doesn’t detract from the impact of the storytelling; if anything, it’s the key ingredient that makes this play ache with humanity.
Joel C. Abels’ set and Madi Spate’s nuanced lighting design takes advantage of the small stage in the Fresno Art Museum’s Bonner Auditorium to full effect. (Even the red walls of the theater and stage area seem perfect.) On one level the set recreates the museum of period collectibles that Charlotte dedicated her life to preserving. But on a more symbolic level it also stands for the overall sweep of a life, you could say, with all the nooks and crevices of memory crammed with carefully curated objects.
And who is that curator? In this case, the playwright. As he tells us in the play, he needs to believe in Charlotte. He needs to know that a brave person can choose to live a life of non-convention and be able to survive two of the most repressive regimes (the Nazis and the East German secret police) ever inflicted upon humanity. All lives — and all history — are edited. That doesn’t make that history wrong, or even untrustworthy. But it requires a sophistication on the part of the reader or viewer to acknowledge the lens of the storyteller. (And that’s what critical thinking — which is the oft-neglected but oh so important part of the education process, is all about.)
Many actors have attempted the role of Charlotte, most famously the Tony Award-winning Jefferson Mays, for whom the part was written. I’m sure that every performer brings some subtle new approach to the role. But I’m happy to say that Lewis was my introduction. Handling a dizzying array of accents, vocal ranges and abrupt shifts in physicality, Lewis’ precision and fluidity is remarkable.
Also key to the production’s impact is the music, which was Charlotte’s great salvation. (Skylar Montierth did the lighting design.) There’s a moment in the show when Lewis, fingering the string of pearls that reliably acts each time as a visual transition into the character of Charlotte, puts one of her beloved albums on the phonograph. You can sense the salving action of that music, the way it soothed what was in many ways a hard slog of a life. It’s a testament to Lewis and StageWorks that they’re able to honor that life with such precision and feeling.