When you first start out as a writer, people sometimes give you a bit of advice based on their own experiences - don't get too close to your idols because you might not like what you see. Those words came to mind as I read about the journey playwright Doug Wright embarked on while creating I Am My Own Wife.
In the beginning, Wright wanted to create a glowing tribute to a gay cultural icon, but as he learned more and more about his subject, he realized that there was far more to the story. So much so that the idea of the writer seeking the truth became not only a character in the play but one of the central themes of the play itself.
"I think that's what the whole play is about," said Mark Nelson, the actor who stars in George Street Playhouse's production of I Am My Own Wife running January 16th through February 11th. "That's the heart of the play - an idol with feet of clay. It's the idea that we want our heroes to be flawless and that's a beautiful thing, but the reality of a flawed human being is an even more beautiful thing. It's the idea of somebody who struggled with their own limitations and their own sins and still managed to live a remarkable life."
I Am My Own Wife tells the fictionalized tale of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (born Lothar Berfelde), a German transvestite who survived both the Nazis and the Communist regimes in East Germany. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Tony Award for Best Play as well as Drama Desk, Lucille Lortel, Outer Critics Circle and Drama League awards. Wright met with and interviewed von Mahlsdorf over a period of months between 1992 and 1994, using that and letters and items from the public record to craft the play. As the playwright dug deeper and deeper into the life of Charlotte, he discovered things which were so different from what he expected that he stopped writing the play for six years before picking it up again.
"I've had that experience in the theatre many times with my heroes," said Nelson. "From a mature perspective, when you look back you can admire those people who had to struggle with real demons."
Demons are certainly something Charlotte von Mahlsdorf struggled with. She is thought of largely as a hero to the gay community for her willingness to stay true to her identity even in face of dire times and facsist regimes.
"We'll never figure out whether she made moral compromises to survive," added Nelson. "But whatever the truth is it's the achievement of hanging on to this unique, quirky, fabulous identity in the middle of a world that was trying to hammer it out of her, which is extraordinary. It's a story for everybody who wants to be an individual - not just gay people.
"The mystery of it is a big part of what Doug's trying to write about. It's the idea that no one can be completely known by another person; that there are always secrets and mysteries and that you shouldn't even try to figure them out. It's also about the question of history. Who gets discarded and left out of history, who gets to write the history, and whose point of view does the history represent?"
The idea of history relates well to the play as Charlotte was very much involved in saving history. After the fall of the Nazis, she began collecting household items, saving every-day items from bombed-out houses. She was also able to take advantage of the clearance of the households of people who left for West Germany. Her collection evolved into the Gründerzeit Museum (a museum of every-day items) in Berlin-Mahlsdorf. In a way, it's kind of like preserving history the way Andy Warhol would have.
"It's a beautiful metaphor for salvaging the junk heap of history and rescuing the things that history wants us to forget and holding them up for everyone to see," said Nelson.
The play seems to tackle many different issues, but that's nothing compared to the amount of characters that Mark Nelson has to tackle during the performance. He works his way through over 35 different characters - It's a one-man play only because he's the only physical person on the stage. Through the magic of theatre, you see not only Charlotte but friends, relatives and even the playwright himself on stage.
Originally Nelson wasn't even planning on acting in this play. He was scheduled to direct the play at the Cleveland Playhouse, but the initial search for a leading actor failed. He had offered the role to about 20 of his favorite actors, but everyone seemed to either be unavailable, un-interested, or flat out scared to take on the daunting role. The search soon reached the point where they were going to have to audition people Nelson didn't know, so with a little push from Michael Bloom (the theatre's artistic director) he made a decision to take on the role himself.
"I thought to myself, if I can play this part... why do I want to sit in a room watching somebody else struggle with it unless it's somebody I love? And we were lucky enough to get Anders Cato who had directed me before at the Berkshire Festival to direct and it turned into a great journey."
Cato will be directing Nelson again as he brings Charlotte to the George Street Playhouse. While the initial preparation for the role was enormous (Nelson said he spent six weeks by himself just working on the lines and trying to figure out the various voices), Nelson thinks that having a little time off has helped him further develop the characters.
"My connection to the play is richer now than it was the first time coming to it," he said. "It's part of my history. I didn't even look at the play or think about it for 10 months, but, at the same time, my brain was percolating on everything that I hadn't resolved or figured out for myself. Things are coming now that never came to me before."
Nelson is returning to George Street Playhouse after several years. He previously directed The Seagull and acted in Talley's Folly at George Street. The Princeton University alum, has appeared on Broadway in After The Fall, The Invention Of Love, Three Sisters, A Few Good Men, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, Broadway Bound, Rumors, and Amadeus. He received an Obie Award for Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile and the 2006 Connecticut Critics Circle Award for Underneath the Lintel at Long Wharf Theatre.
Coming back to George Street is special for Nelson as he and David Saint (George Street Playhouse's Artistic Director) were classmates in Uta Hagen's acting class in 1980. In fact, his first scene for her was a scene that involved David.
"There are few places where I've landed in my various wandering career that feel like home and this is one of them."
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at email@example.com.