DORSET -- An elderly woman, wearing a black head scarf and plain house dress, adorned with a string of pearls, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf sits on a faded antique chair. As curator and collector of the Gründerzeit Museum of everyday objects in East Berlin, she places miniature furniture on a table and describes the lives of people who once used the pieces.
She is a transvestite who lives and dresses as a woman.
Von Mahlsdorf's own, difficult story -- from her father's brutality to life under Nazi and communist regimes -- forms playwright Doug Wright's celebrated solo play, "I Am My Own Wife," devised from interviews with the now-deceased von Mahlsdorf following the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the play, she is seen as a survivor.
Tomorrow, the Dorset Players will present Wright's Pulitzer Prize-winning play at the Dorset Playhouse, a bold move for a community theater company established in 1927 and more used to staging well-known shows, like "Guys and Dolls" and "The Importance of Being Earnest."
Director Sherry Kratzer explained she would not have offered the play for consideration unless she knew she had someone who would audition for it.
She cast local actor Tom Ferguson in the demanding roles of von Mahlsdorf and the play's 36 other characters, which include the author Wright.
A Boston University classmate of Julianne Moore, Geena Davis and Jason Alexander, Ferguson enjoyed a successful NYC career in TV commercial production before settling in Vermont. There, he joined the Dorset Players and has performed leading roles, from Nathan Detroit to Lady Bracknell, in shows Kratzer directed.
Ferguson has worked on the part of von Mahlsdorf for the past six months with accent coach Elizabeth Karet, Kratzer explained.
"He is a perfectionist," she said.
In 2004, he saw Jefferson Mays perform in the inaugural Tony-winning Broadway run of "I Am My Own Wife" directed by Moisés Kaufman, co-creator of "The Laramie Project."
"It's pretty daunting," Ferguson said. "You're by yourself -- it's a different animal entirely from what I was used to. You have to change on a dime, and you're reacting off yourself, not another breathing human being on stage."
Acting in community theater has rekindled his professional acting career at age 55.
"It's funny how life changes," he said. "Now that I'm a certain age, all these wonderful character roles are available."
In this play, as he embraces the challenge of portraying multiple characters -- often simultaneously -- few are as challenging as von Mahlsdorf, both artistically and morally.
"This is somebody who survived two incredibly repressive regimes as a homosexual and a transvestite," he explained. "It didn't make sense to people that she survived all this. [She] is such an unusual individual, but she was faced with the same choices that most of the ordinary people around her were at that time. And the audience is going to be faced with choices about how they feel about this particular person."
"I am a gay man and have been disenfranchised in my life," he added. "I think I can understand an individual's need to survive in an extraordinary circumstance."
And he feels the Playhouse audience will understand, as well.
"Theater shows the human condition. It holds the mirror up for the audience to look at themselves," he said. "So regardless of what my life has been, or what her life was, you can always relate as a human being. It's in the writing, and her relationships and experiences -- the story is so rich, there's a lot to connect to."
Set designer Drew Hill recreates von Mahlsdorf's world with the help of period furniture from the Weston Playhouse and lighting by Angie Merwin.
The play is recommended for mature audiences, aged 14 and older, due to some violent and sexual descriptions.
"I think our local audience is more sophisticated than sometimes we give them credit for," Ferguson said. "I'm not bashful. It's part of the story, part of the truth."
[Wright] wanted to write a play about a hero, about a wonderful woman's story of survival, Kratzer explained.
"A lot of it is his conflict [comes from] what you do when you put someone on a pedestal, who never asked to be put there, and they disappoint you," she said.
She recalls an observation Wright once gave in an interview: "Victors get to write history, but it is the victims who have the better story."
If you go ...
What: 'I Am My Own Wife'
by Doug Wright, performed
by Tom Ferguson
Where: Dorset Players at the Dorset Playhouse, Vt.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 7, and Saturday, March 8, and
March 14 and 15; 2 p.m. Sunday, March 9, and March 16
Admission: $20 for adults,
$8 for students
Information: (802) 867-5777, dorsetplayers.org