CAMBRIDGE, N.Y. — One man. Two genders. Two languages. North of 30 characters.
For any actor, director and theater company that sounds like a tall order. And because it is indeed one, "I Am My Own Wife" earned playwright Doug Wright a plethora of awards, including the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Now, in a limited engagement, Hubbard Hall Center for the Arts and Education will present this modern classic to regional audiences over two weekends, beginning Friday and ending March 17, starring Rylan Morsbach and directed by Trey Morehouse.
The vigorous one-actor play tells the true-life story of German antiques dealer Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, who was born a boy, Lothar Berfelde, but dressed most of her life as a woman. Charlotte killed her father when she was a young child and then subsequently went on to survive the Nazi and Communist regimes in East Berlin as a transgender woman.
Hubbard Hall executive and artistic director David Snider said that the impetus for bringing the play to Cambridge is current events.
"I'd never seen it until [artistic director] Jeannine Haas and [Goshen, Mass.-based] Pauline Productions produced it last summer [at Majestic Theater in West Springfield, Mass.]," Snider said. "Trey directed and Rylan acted in it. I was blown away by the performance and the play and decided right then to see if we could have them come do a new production at Hubbard Hall. I had no idea it'd become even more topical by the time we were doing it."
In an era where issues such as the role of transgender military members are once again being questioned by the current administration, the words "topical," "relevant" and "timely" seem to crop up throughout this play's history, suggesting the perfect word to describe the play might be "timeless."
Snider said that the reach of the issue is not just broad brush, but also right down to the local level.
"This topic stirs up strong feelings in many people," Snider said. "I've even had a member of the Cambridge community reach out to me, to say `Transgender women are not women! This is make believe!' That kind of reaction I think points to a person's own insecurities about who they are. If you know and love yourself, you're more able to live, and let others live, in peace. I invited them to come see the play to try and learn something."
Morehouse agreed with Snider, saying he has dealt with that vibe while working on the play for the past seven years, often in a close partnership with Morsbach.
"We began working on this play in 2012 while we were both seniors in college at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington," Morehouse said. "Rylan was looking for a play that could work as his senior thesis project, and I was looking for a play to direct ... as my directing capstone project. Early on, I read the play, which is a modern classic, and one of the more challenging one-person plays out there."
Morehouse said that analyses of "I Am My Own Wife" often highlight the 30 characters portrayed by the play's actor, but they don't often mention the quick changes between accent and physicalization, something which Morsbach exhibits throughout each rehearsal with considerable amounts of sweat.
Still, the actor emphasized the many cerebral adjustments that make "I Am My Own Wife" such a tour de force.
"This is my third time performing this piece but equally challenging at times is putting myself in the head-space of each character," Morsbach said in a break from rehearsals. "Charlotte herself is quite the enigma as far as her exact motives and her reliability as a narrator, so the trap as an actor is letting that murkiness excuse a lack of specificity in performance. Furthermore, the huge obstacles Charlotte faced are far beyond anything I've experienced in my own life, fortunately, so I have to imagine my way into all these outrageous scenarios that comprise her story."
Indeed, the obstacles and oppression faced in real life by von Mahlsdorf create an air of empathy around the play which has contributed to the scores of honors which have come its way, and the fact that it remains a much-produced piece almost two decades after Wright penned it. According to Wright, "I Am My Own Wife" has "been performed in 33 countries and counting [since its premiere in 2003]."
Reached in Burgundy, France via social media personal message, Wright said that the enduring quality of "I Am My Own Wife" gives him a deep sense of gratification past all the awards and accolades.
Wright also had a message for Morsbach.
"Every wonderful actor who tackles the role carries a piece of my soul," Wright said. "I know it's a mammoth undertaking and I'm so grateful. Creative artists everywhere are helping to keep the legacy of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf alive."
Contact freelance journalist Telly Halkias at email@example.com or on Twitter: @TellyHalkias