‘I Am My Own Wife’ at Rep Stage by Amanda Gunther

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The overwhelming need to believe in a story that is being told is a deeply compelling urge that will keep you on the edge of your seat as you listen; the little details and finely tuned emotions that unfurl as the story unfolds. A moving story of epic proportions comes to Rep Stage this autumn, a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play, I Am My Own Wife, will have you enthralled from the moment you lay eyes on the set until the very last light fades out and the story has found its end. Written by Doug Wright and Directed by Tony Tsendeas, this inspiring dramatic work is based on the true life story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a German transvestite who survived both the Nazi and East German Communist regimes and lived to tell the tale.

Michael Stebbins in 'I Am My Own Wife' at Rep Stage. Photo by Stan Barouh.
Michael Stebbins in ‘I Am My Own Wife’ at Rep Stage. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Scenic Designer Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden crafts a set of stunning beauty that is antiquated yet precious; a combination of majestic relics and timeworn atmosphere that encapsulates the essence of Mahlsdorf’s story, making it a palpable component of the work. The enormous sweeping spiral that hugs the space with its curvature makes the perfect frame; creating a momentary portrait of her life forever frozen as the audience looks upon it. The white framed shadowboxes to illuminate the menagerie of treasures in her museum are the perfect touch to this display. A well deserved nod goes to Properties Designer Vicki Sussman for incorporating all of the masterful furnishings of Mahlsdorf’s collection in a brilliant fashion that leaves the stage free from clutter. Each elegant piece, be it clock or sidebar, is plucked in miniature from a wooden box, the intricate detail of each item only enhanced by her vivid descriptions as she holds them up for all to see.

Playing numerous characters is a challenge in and of itself, but doing so where they all have varying accents and sounds to their unique voices compounds that challenge exponentially. Vocal and Dialect coach Nancy Krebs ensured distinguishing characteristics were drawn for each of the characters, a soft but clearly intelligible German accent for Mahlsdorf, sounding delicate and slightly feminine. A much harsher and lower pitch with a more pronounced approach to the German sound when playing Alfred. Krebs ensures that every time a character is introduced to the rotation, however briefly, that there is something unique about the way their sound is delivered.

Performing the role of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, and everyone else that appears in the show, is the incredibly talented Michael Stebbins, under the direction of Tony Tsendeas. Stebbins and Tsendeas work together to create more than just a piece of provocative theatre; they truly recreate the life events of Mahlsdorf, with the guided words of Wright at work, and bring it to the audience with a vibrant reality that is shocking, captivating, and stunning to say the least. Tsendeas guides Stebbins into flawlessly crafting the illusion that there is more than one person present on the stage; when two characters are having a rapid-pace conversation with one another it feels like two people talking rather than just one actor switching back and forth between accents and words.

Stebbins does a sensational job of rendering justice to the playwright’s words. Having a vivacity that is always present in his voice, regardless of whether or not the moment in which he is speaking is an emotionally harrowing one or a lighthearted one, Stebbins keeps you hanging on every word as he glides through this story. Every moment of nostalgia, as retold by Charlotte, is grounded firmly in the bright recollection of that memory; Stebbins’ execution of each word or phrase drawing forth strings of brilliant imagery that connects the audience to that moment suspended in time. Balancing the emotional roller coaster of her life is no simple task, but the moments of pride and elation are equally as vibrant as the moments of horrific tragedy and sorrow.

Michael Stebbins in 'I Am My Own Wife' at Rep Stage. Photo by Stan Barouh.
Michael Stebbins in ‘I Am My Own Wife’ at Rep Stage. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Stebbins’ engages his face and eyes above all to create an additional vessel that carries the story even further. When recounting the tale of saving each piece of furniture from the bar his eyes are beaming with pride, his face aglow with triumph. The same can be said for the truly haunting recollection of Charlotte’s 16-year-old self with the Nazis; fear paralyzed in Stebbins’ eyes so present that you can nearly feel it.

A natural born storyteller, Michael Stebbins gives a sensational performance.

Running Time: 2 hours, with one intermission.

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I Am My Own Wife plays through November 17, 2013 at Rep Stage— at The Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center in the Studio Theatre at Howard Community College – 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (443) 518-1500, or purchase them online.