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Oakland’s ‘Wife’: An incredible story told in compelling fashion

Sunday, March 6, 2011

By Milan Paurich

“The awful thing about life is this: Everyone has his reasons.” — Jean Renoir


Doug Wright’s “I Am My Own Wife” is a memory play about the large (and small) bargains we make with ourselves on a daily basis to survive.

For Charlotte von Mahls-dorf, the German antiquarian who miraculously survived both the Nazi and Communist regimes in East Berlin while openly living as a transvestite, one of those bargains was being a Stasi informant. Other people’s lives may have been destroyed in the process, but von Mahlsdorf somehow managed to emerge mostly unscathed.

It wasn’t until the collapse of the Berlin Wall that her collaborationist activities finally were revealed, permanently sullying her reputation as one of Germany’s leading antique collectors.

Yes, morality can indeed be a slippery slope. (Self-created fabulist Charlotte von Mahlsdorf could be the soul sister of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s greatest fictional anti-heroines: Maria Braun, Petra von Kant, Veronika Voss and, most of all, Elvira, the lovelorn transexual from “In a Year of 13 Moons.”)

Winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for drama, “Wife” tells von Mahlsdorf’s incredible story in a compelling fashion. Though ostensibly a “one-man show” (a single actor plays not only von Mahlsdorf but the countless others who impacted her life), it contains more vividly drawn characters than a dozen ordinary plays. Of course, without the right performer to incarnate all of those various roles, “I Am My Own Wife” would collapse like a house of cards.

Fortunately, the Oakland Center for the Arts production of “Wife” that opened Friday night has more than just the “right” performer to headline such an ambitious undertaking: It’s got James McClellan.

This community-theater veteran wowed audiences last season with his brilliant turn in the Christopher Fidram-directed Oakland staging of Donald Margulies’ “Dinner With Friends,” but nothing in McClellan’s three-decades-plus career could have prepared us for his thrilling tour-de-force here. McClellan’s stunning performance marks him as a veritable force of nature.

Through the subtlest of body language — whether a slight tilt of the head or arching of the back — McClellan makes each character utterly distinct and extraordinarily memorable.

Although he wears a black peasant dress, orthopedic shoes and a pearl necklace throughout the show, McClellan isn’t doing a campy drag act. He’s inhabiting the very essence of von Malhsdorf and every other person she shares the stage with.

The specificity of detail (e.g., speaking French with a German accent) underlines the virtuosity of McClellan’s remarkable achievement. Kudos to director Michael Dempsey for having the foresight to choose a performer — possibly the only local actor — capable of doing justice to such an arduous and demanding role.

Even when the production (Scott Sutton’s lighting strains for the atmospheric but is mostly murky instead) and script (Wright incorporates far too much of himself into von Mahlsdorf’s story) disappoint, “I Am My Own Wife” is as close to a must-see theatrical event as anything that’s opened in the Youngstown area so far this year. I’m not sure whether it really needed to be 21/2 hours, yet McClellan insures that every minute of that (somewhat) overextended running time is touched with palpable genius.

“I Am My Own Wife” runs through Saturday at the Oakland Center for the Arts. For reservations, call 330-746-0404.