When the Berlin Wall came down, playwright Doug Wright found the character and story of a lifetime: Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a German transvestite who survived the Second World War and the Cold War.
"She walked a fine line between the Nazis and the Communists," Wright says, as a character in the play. "And she did it in high heels."
Actually, the Charlotte we see wears orthopedic shoes. For much of I Am My Own Wife, Charlotte narrates her autobiography, as revealed to Wright in the early 1990s, when she was in her 60s. It was quite a life, including discovering a preference for woman's clothes at the age of 15, being imprisoned by the Nazis, maintaining a speakeasy for homosexuals under the eyes of the East German secret police, indulging a healthy appetite for sex and even sadomasochism and lovingly restoring antiques. Charlotte is witty and candid, even if she rarely offers any judgments about her own actions.
Wright's one-person play won the Pulitzer Prize as well as Tony Awards for Best Play and Actor. It requires a talented actor who must play Charlotte at various ages as well as Wright struggling with the story and roughly 35 other people. Under Carl Walker's direction, Bob Edes Jr. deftly captures the gentle but firm Charlotte, wearing a simple black dress and pearls but exposing the hands of a craftsman (she restored antique furniture). Edes ventures delicately through the static of long German phrases and inflects English with a rough accent, before turning sharply and bursting out as a loud and gregarious American serviceman or Charlotte's menacing father. Edes' Charlotte radiates a subtle but endearing charm.
On a smartly designed minimalist set, leaving us little to consider besides Charlotte, her version of history and her singlehanded survival, Edes offers her precise recital of details about the antiques she collected and softer lamenting tales of how she took some of them from the homes of Jews removed by the Nazis, and others from mansions demolished by the communists. But is taking them historical preservation or self-preservation?
Amid the rubble of the former East Germany, however, another account of her life emerges. Files from the secret police suggest her survival revolved around some complicated choices, which introduce more remarkable characters. As Wright struggled with his research, he positioned himself closer and closer to the center of the drama, but he's not nearly as interesting as Charlotte, and his predicament not as dire. At times, forcing the approach of a memory play and relating Wright's frustration with conflicting accounts takes the drama away from its more compelling immediacy.
No matter what conclusions you draw about Charlotte, however, her story is incredibly fascinating. Walker and Edes succeed in delivering a complex and unique human story against the backdrop of ruthlessly unforgiving regimes. — Will Coviello
I Am My Own Wife
8 p.m. Thu.-Sat.; 3 p.m. Sun.; Dec. 3-6
Southern Rep, The Shops at Canal Place, 333 Canal St., third floor, 522-6545; www.southernrep.com