“Have smock, will transform” — it could very well be the credo for actor Andrew Nance, star of the one-man play “I Am My Own Wife,” which begins previews this week at San Francisco’s New Conservatory Theatre Center.
The Tony Award-winning work by Doug Wright finds Nance, who’s also NCTC conservatory director, clad only in a simple dark robe, a headdress and soft-white pearls as he takes on more than 35 characters, none more beguiling than the protagonist — the late Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a German transvestite who managed to survive two of history’s worst calamities: Nazism and Communism.
“She was a warrior,” Nance says of his alter ego.
She was also the stuff of which great plays are made. Often caught in a media and political maelstrom, von Mahlsdorf discovered a way to live a full life in East Berlin under both the Nazi- and Soviet-dominated regimes.
Wright, along with actor Jefferson Mays, took home Tonys in 2004 for the stage work, which also garnered a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Lambda Literary Award for Drama.
The play turned heads locally when Mays toured with the show in 2005. NCTC artistic and executive director Ed Decker directs the 2008 incarnation.
For Nance, stepping into such a ballyhooed role proved challenging.
“I wanted to honor the work,” he says, “but as an actor, the challenge was how many different characters I had to play. I found that exciting and daunting at the same time. I’m sure I will be learning the intricacies of these people until we close the play in March.”
That’s a good thing, especially for an actor who can’t escape absorbing many of the deeper messages found in Wright’s soul-stirring drama.
“To me, it has to do with the power of the media and how easily it can morph perceptions about an individual,” he says. “And a lot of it isabout being able to trust ourselves and not being ashamed of our nature.”
He points out that von Mahlsdorf “never apologized for being herself” and that her love of old furniture, antiques and “everyday items” eventually led her to create a lavish showcase for those antiquities by founding the Gründerzeit Museum in 1960. She oversaw the operations until the mid-’90s — after surviving a media blitz that questioned her ties to the Nazis.
“The play makes you question her a bit,” Nance admits. “I think audience will be left to decide for themselves.”
Von Mahlsdorf eventually relocated to Sweden in the mid-’90s and opened another museum. She died in 2002, before the Broadway show opened.
“I feel like I know Charlotte at this point,” Nance says, “and I like to believe she is listening and helping me out. I think the play is really about honoring ourselves and trusting that that’s enough.”
I Am My Own Wife
Where: New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; previews Friday through Feb. 1; opens Feb. 2; closes March 2
Tickets: $22 to $40
Contact: (415) 861-8972 or www.nctc.org