Dressing Up

Arnie Burton of 'I Am My Own Wife'

Called an exploration of the will to survive, it’s no wonder that performing I Am My Own Wife at Olney Theatre Center leaves Arnie Burton feeling taxed.

”It’s not physically demanding, but mentally it’s exhausting,” he says of his portrayal of the real-life Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a German gay man and transvestite who lived first under Nazis, then Communists. ”It requires a real mental commitment — you just have to be in every moment. In a normal play, your mind can wander. In this play, if your mind wanders, you’re dead.”

Consider that this is a one-man show of more than 40 characters that Burton conveys. Beyond that, there is also the reputation the play by Doug Wright enjoys, having won the 2004 Tony for Best Play and the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama.

But while so much is being asked of Burton for this production, he seems to get back at least some fraction of what he’s giving his audiences.

”There is something that resonates for those of us who grew up hiding a big part of ourselves, then learning to accept that part and be proud of that part, learning that this makes us special or unique,” observes Burton, who is gay. ”Living as a transvestite…under probably the two most oppressive regimes, [von Mahlsdorf] lived as herself. If I’ve learned anything from her, it’s a commitment to living as your authentic self.

”She probably informed on a good friend of hers to protect herself,” he continues. ”That’s what makes her more fascinating. She wasn’t perfect [and] she did some things that certainly weren’t heroic. But I think the good outweighs the bad. She lived her life in that time with seemingly no shame. To wear a dress under the Nazis and then the Communists takes an incredible sense of self. I’m kind of bowled over by her.”

I Am My Own Wife runs through May 20, with a special May 27 performance, at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney Sandy-Spring Road in Olney, Md. For more information, visit www.olneytheatre.org call 301-924-3400.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.