What a pity that electrical problems in Center City last week forced Amaryllis Theatre Company to cancel two performances of I Am My Own Wife at the Adrienne Theatre. That meant less time for actor Charlie DelMarcelle to strut his formidable stuff.
Luckily, Amaryllis added a performance and I got to see DelMarcelle, a local actor and adjunct theater professor, as he quietly, assuredly, bowled over an audience Monday night, which he'll surely continue to do through Sunday.
I Am My Own Wife, which won the best-play Tony in 2004, is made for a tour de force. But not everyone can pull it off. DelMarcelle does, playing about three dozen roles - some of them only one-liners but each of them different - in a drama that's normally done that way, by a single actor. When it's not - as in the Wilma's 2005 two-actor production - I Am My Own Wife loses luster; its storytelling is less magical.
That's no problem here, as DelMarcelle demonstrates in a measured, heartfelt performance, chiefly in the role of a real-life German transvestite, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, who managed to survive first the Nazis, then the East German Communists.
Von Mahlsdorf, born Lothar Berfelde, was no drag queen and no joke. When a lesbian aunt recognized his infatuation with women's clothes, she encouraged him to be himself, and from then on Lothar lived as a woman. Von Mahlsdorf died in 2002 at age 74.
She became a collector of German furniture, clocks, inkwells, and other household items, mostly from the last decade of the 1800s. She stored the enormous collection in her home and ran it as a museum; she also operated a secret gay bar in the basement, an astonishing feat through two repressive, brutal regimes.
As in the original Broadway production with Jefferson Mays, DelMarcelle plays her in a true-to-form black dress with a head wrap and orthopedic shoes, all accessorized by a simple string of pearls (Maggie Baker's costumes). Simple is the operable word for the manner of this demure but proud character, who had a questionable relationship with the East German police, who recruited domestic spies during the communist era.
In a fluid production directed by Josette Todaro with impressive sensitivity to von Mahlsdorf's understated nature, the characters include playwright Doug Wright, who wrote the drama as the story of his research on von Mahlsdorf as well as a theatrical profile of her.
In the Adrienne's small space, I Am My Own Wife gains an intimacy I never knew it could have - we are very close to this curious character, and feel we know her firsthand. Through a rear-stage wall that's really a scrim when lit from behind, Meghan Jones' compact yet rich set hints at von Mahlsdorf's enormous collection.
Jerold R. Forsythe's lighting and John Sovicek's excellent sound design take us between settings, and sometimes between characters. It's an altogether enveloping production and, for DelMarcelle, a triumph.
Presented by Amaryllis Theatre Company at the Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom St., through June 13. Tickets: $10.
Information: 1-877-260-1126 or www.amaryllistheatre.org.