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A man tried to kill Jeanette Buck, and on the way back from the edge of death she learned firsthand something the rest of us could stand to remember: People can be pretty amazing. There Are No Strangers, the hourlong play she’s offering up as testament to that redemptive discovery, chronicles both the attack that nearly destroyed her and the flood of generosity that buoyed her until she could stand on her own again—and in its premiere at Theater J, with Delia Taylor at the helm and Holly Twyford in a surpassingly confident portrayal of Buck, it’s a neat, efficient narrative remarkable for its sensitivity and its surprising, welcome streak of humor.
And its sophistication: Many an ought-to-be-inspiring story has curdled from an overabundance of authorial awakening, but part of what keeps Buck’s piece from clotting up is that it rarely presumes to offer answers. It’s foreign territory she finds herself in after she wakes up in a Los Angeles hospital bed—skull cracked, face all but destroyed, brain damage the question no one much wants answered—and the signs she posts on the way back are largely punctuated with question marks.
She doesn’t ask just the expected questions, either, the predictable ones that grow out of an assault survivor’s understandable uncertainty. There’s a not-too-surprising “Was it my fault?” rooted in Buck’s inability to remember the attack and the LAPD’s inability to find the attacker, but it’s followed hard by a “What would it mean for it to be my fault?”—a more reflective take than most could muster. There are darker inquiries—“Who did he recognize in me? Why did he stop?”—and some that lead in lighter, higher directions. “What is my relationship to these souls who have chosen to heal me?” figures prominently among those, and it’s one of the few Buck dares, with the similarly affirmative choice that is the play’s title, to suggest an answer to.
Twyford relates the story’s horrors matter-of-factly, never straying into pathos but never shortchanging the reality of Buck’s trauma, either. (Like many locals, Twyford has long known the author, a familiar fixture on the D.C. theater scene who’d moved to Los Angeles to try filmmaking when she was attacked; Buck has since returned to D.C. and a job at Theater J, and many Washingtonians, including Washington City Paper publisher Amy Austin, figure in the events retold here.) The coltishness that sometimes marks the actress’s characterizations has been banished; her tone and her body language alike have been transformed into something altogether more still, more coiled. Assurance? Maybe. No: a watchful calm.
Taylor’s staging is an exercise in concision, aside from one effectively expressive indulgence—a stagewide movie screen, which projectionist Michael Skinner and cinematographer Richie Sherman paint with snippets of grainy video that echo and amplify the events, the images, and yes, the questions Twyford keeps laying out. “What makes something sacred?” is one more of those—and in a memory play written by a woman who’s had to borrow her memories of a life-altering event from the friends and strangers who helped her survive it, that’s a question that suggests its own answer.
The lights come up on a cabinet—a Biedermeier? A beautiful curiosity, in any case, intricate, and from another age. The personality who shortly emerges to position a gramophone atop it—and no other word quite captures Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, antiques collector, museum proprietor, and dubious heroine of I Am My Own Wife, as well as “personality”—well, she turns out to be an intricate curiosity, too. Like the furniture and the artifacts she dotes on, she’s an unlikely fit in the present day, a product of an era that can seem utterly incomprehensible to the modern mind. And like that ornate cabinet, she’s an interestingly contradictory thing: For all their showy externals, both of them are at least partly in the business of concealing things.
It should be said that Charlotte, at least the Charlotte presented along with 30-odd other characters, including the author himself, by the quietly chameleonic Tony Award winner Jefferson Mays, is both real and unreal. Author Doug Wright set out to create a biographical piece, a celebration really, centered on one of Berlin’s most offbeat celebrities—a 70-something woman born male into the Weimar Germany that metastasized into the Third Reich, an inveterate survivor who bludgeoned her abusive Nazi father to death and emerged intact from the historical nightmare of Hitler’s regime, then managed to live queer in Soviet-dominated East Germany right through the fall of the Wall. Until shortly before her death in 2002, Charlotte ran a furniture museum that preserved, in its basement, one of those deliciously decadent Weimar-era cabarets; in 1990, the reunified Germany gave her one of its highest public honors for her restoration and preservation work. “As far as grant applications go,” the Wright character comments wryly in My Own Wife, “you’re a slam dunk.”
But what the author actually emerged with, after hours of taped interviews and much digging into the official record, was an acute case of creative paralysis: Turns out Charlotte’s stories may not all have been entirely true, and her survival tactics seem to have included informing on friends and colleagues to the Stasi, East Germany’s notorious secret police. Icon tarnished, initial infatuation shattered, Wright couldn’t write, and the tapes and transcripts sat in a drawer for years.
And so I Am My Own Wife, which finally coalesced when Wright teamed up with Mays and Laramie Project co-creator Moisés Kaufman, turns out to be the story of trying to tell Charlotte’s story. A captivating, cleanly told story it is, too: Kaufman directs with a crystalline efficiency and a careful reserve, and Mays slips effortlessly, unshowily from one skin into another, playing everyone from Charlotte’s butch-lesbian Tante to a Stasi thug to the Texas-born journalist friend who in 1993 introduced Wright to his eventual subject. (Turns out a banjo-broad Southern twang makes German sound even uglier.) He plays Wright, too, of course, watching with frustration and grief and exasperation—“It’s like some Cold War thriller written by Armistead Maupin!”—as the tabloids tar his heroine with the opprobrium a society reserves for name-namers. Indeed, Act 2 is dominated by the playwright’s struggle to reconcile spotty historical evidence with a now-suspect oral history delivered with absolute conviction.
But Charlotte, collector of phonographs and recordings, clocks and keys, ultimately declines to be unlocked or measured or captured. She’ll have nothing to do with explaining, with defending, with asking for understanding. “What do you do when a piece loses its luster?” someone asks her, and her actions as she answers say as much as the words Wright gives her. “The polish is antique, too,” she replies—“the nicks and stains”—and buffing them away would make the piece other than itself. As she speaks, Charlotte returns to that intricate, inscrutable cabinet, packing away the artifacts of a life that, if less inspiring than Wright initially imagined, was in any case—by any measure—more than ordinary. And it’s to everyone’s credit that Charlotte keeps her dignity resolutely about her as she closes the door on what’s inside.CP