Hands say everything in Hubbard Hall's 'I Am My Own Wife'

Rylan Morsbach as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in Hubbard Hall's production of Doug Wright's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, 'I Am My Own Wife.'

CAMBRIDGE, N.Y. — It's about the hands, "... big, and thick. The hands if a woodworker. A craftsman. Definitely a man's hands"; the hands of a man with the soul of a woman.

The narrator, playwright Doug Wright, is describing Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. the central character in Wright's Pulitzer Prize-play "I Am My Own Wife," which is being given a respectable, if mostly clinical, emotionally uninvolving production at Hubbard Hall Center for the Arts and Education's Main Stage.

Born Lothar Berfelde in 1928 in an Eastern Berlin suburb, Mahlsdorf — "a grim place," Wright says early in the play, filled with apartment complexes "that rise like gulags" — Charlotte (played with measured grace and precision by Rylan Morsbach) lived her life as a transvestite until her death in 2003 at age 65.

We see her first at the very beginning of director Trey Morehouse's production as she opens the door to Andrea Nice's fragmentary apartment setting — a dark, shadowy, semi-impressionistic affair of furniture pieces. There is a movie screen upstage, behind and above which is a wall of empty picture frames. The set spills over the apron of Hubbard Hall's proscenium Main Stage in two levels onto the auditorium floor. Charlotte is dressed in a simple black house dress over which she wears a tan apron. A black kerchief covers her hair. Around her neck is a simple string of pearls. She is wearing black work shoes. She smiles graciously, turns and leaves, closing the door behind her without having said a word. She returns moments later holding in her hands the horn of a gramophone which she lovingly carries to a table down stage where she connects to the antique turntable and explains to us how it all works. Her hands move through the air with uncommon brace, settling on the gramophone horn as if it were a delicate glass animal. Indeed, through all of Morsbach's 30-plus characterizations the actor's hands help reveal, define, extend character in remarkably nuanced measure.

Charlotte was a survivor, a woman in a man's body who survived the Nazis; an abusive, intolerant father; and then the Communists who controlled East Germany in the immediate post-World War II years. Her house in Mahlsdorf was a museum of her collectibles, which she opened to the public for guided tours. Among the attractions, an authentic Weimar Republic cabaret she assembled in the basement of her house.

Charlotte, who asserted all her life that she was not transsexual, gave over to her natural instincts when, at the age of 15, she visited an aunt in East Prussia and found a closet filled with girl's clothing. She was drawn immediately to what she saw and began trying on some of the clothing. Her aunt came into the room to discover Lothar/Charlotte trying on some of the clothing. "Did you know that nature has dared to play a joke on us?" Charlotte's aunt asks rhetorically. "You should've been born a girl, and I should've been a man!"

Her aunt then gives Charlotte a book by sex researcher Magnus Hirschfield who talks about the "delicate balance of male and female substances" in each human being.

From that moment, it is Charlotte forever.

"I Am My Own Wife" is drawn from a series of interviews and communications between Wright and Charlotte over a nearly 10-year period, beginning with their first meeting in Berlin in 1993. Wright had been given a tip about Charlotte two years earlier by an old friend, John Wood, who was then Berlin bureau chief for U.S. News and World Report. Over time, Wright had access to the deepest portions of Charlotte's life, including a relationship with a gay antiques collector named Alfred Kirschner, who specialized in antique clocks. With Charlotte's assistance, Kirschner launched a scheme in which he illicitly sold clocks to American soldiers in exchange for American cash. Exchanging goods for western currency was illegal under the East German regime. The Stasi (East Germany's police and intelligence agency) eventually arrested Alfred; Charlotte was disgraced and publicly humiliated and eventually left Germany for Sweden, where she remained for several years until it was safe to return tp her homeland. Moreover, Wright came into possession of a Stasi file on Charlotte which gave proof to rumors that she had been a Stasi informant.

To a degree, "I Am My Own Wife" is as much about artistic process — a writer's attempt to find the truth about a contradictory, complicated, enigmatic figure — as it is a chronicle about one person's insistence on living her own life on her own terms within a culture that resisted that lifestyle at every level.

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It is a compelling story that is not always compellingly told on the Hubbard Hall stage. Morsbach is a skilled actor. His transitions among the 30-plus characters he plays over the course of the production's just-under two hours are smooth and seemingly effortless. Character definitions, their rhythms and tones, are clear and distinct. In many ways, Morsbach's performance is bold and fearless. But there also is both a literal and figurative sense of clinical distance here. Morehouse's staging confines too much of the action on the stage itself and Morsbach's work, for all its skill and savvy, is not assertive enough to bridge the divide from the audience. As a result, Morehouse's production misses the compelling emotional heft of intimacy. Charlotte winds up as much a guarded enigma at the end of this production as she is at the beginning; an enigma within an enigma.

Theater review

What: "I Am My Own Wife" by Doug Wright. Directed by Trey Morehouse

With: Rylan Morsbach

Where: Hubbard Hall Center for the Arts and Education, Mainstage, 25 E. Main St., Cambridge, N.Y.

When: Through Sunday. Friday and Saturday evening at 7:30; Saturday and Sunday afternoon at 2

Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

Tickets: $25 (adults); $10 (students 21 and under)

Information/Reservations: 518-677-2495; hubbardhall.org