Doug Wright's remarkable play ''I Am My Own Wife," now happily but briefly at the Wilbur Theatre, gives the wonderful Jefferson Mays an actor's dream: the chance to transform himself, alone on the stage, into more than 40 characters. More profound and more rare, though, is the transformations it reveals in those characters, in their stories, and in their meanings to us and to themselves.
The play, which began as a small New York production, moved to Broadway, and went on to win both the Pulitzer and the Tony in 2004, draws on the life of a real person, an East German transvestite and collector named Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Wright interviewed Charlotte (nee Lothar Berfelde) before her death in 2002; he also read press accounts of her life under both the Nazi and Communist regimes, examined the government records that revealed her troubling collaboration with the dreaded Stasi secret police, and recorded his own impressions of her weirdly personal museum of old furniture, clocks, and gramophones. But he has taken all this unwieldy raw material and, aided by Mays's graceful acting and Moises Kaufman's subtle direction, shaped it into a beautifully structured, genuinely theatrical work of art.
That is the first, and most important, transformation. On Wright's skill in effecting it depends our understanding and embrace of all the other transformations that his play enfolds: Charlotte's self-reinventions, both personal and political; the complex changes of perspective that Wright, himself a character in the play, brings to her story; and the shifting public reactions to Charlotte as she is hailed as a gay icon, pitied as a Nazi victim, reviled as a Communist informer, and ultimately revealed as something more complicated and more interesting than any of those roles, a human being.
Through all of these metamorphoses, Mays serves as muse, embodiment, and guide. His instant shifts from Charlotte's twittery, German-accented English to the playwright's anxious drawl, then on to a crisp Nazi officer, a Texan in Berlin, a high-octane talk-show host, a cold nurse, a guttural collector, and on and on -- even a whole international flock of hectoring reporters -- demonstrate his enormous gifts as an actor. With a fluidly adaptable voice, simple gestures, and wildly expressive eyes, he becomes each of these people in turn. But this would be mere mimicry, a kind of parlor trick, if it weren't in the service of the play itself. So, too, the magnificent technical aspects of this production, largely unchanged from New York -- the richly layered set design of Derek McLane, the delicately focused lights by David Lander, the exquisitely evocative sound design by Andre J. Pluess and Ben Sussman, and, of course, Janice Pytel's little black dress -- delight not just by their excellence, but by echoing and deepening the play's meanings.
For what Wright is up to is not just to give us an amusing evening with a complicated eccentric -- though, for sure, we get that too. His real gift to us is an examination of the ways in which all of us, not just the obvious oddities like Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, put on identities and use them to construct our lives. We're all in drag; Charlotte just knows it. And, thanks to Wright, Mays, and Charlotte herself, we leave the theater remembering it, too.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.