The remarkable actor does such an astounding job of embodying the aging, fussy and slightly fey German transvestite Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf that it feels like waking up from a spell when he suddenly transforms into a very masculine American journalist about a dozen minutes into the play.
But this is only the first of countless captivating moments as Wichmann goes on to portray 34 additional characters in order to tell the story of Von Mahlsdorf's complex and seemingly impossible life.
Born Lothar Berfelde in 1928, Von Mahlsdorf discovered her predilection for girls' clothes as a boy living in Berlin. It was her misfortune to live under two of the most repressive regimes in history, the Nazis and the Communists of East Germany, and yet somehow she survived, all the time pursuing an abiding love for antique furniture, clocks and phonographs. Her dramatic story includes a stint in a German youth prison, close calls with soldiers during the fall of Berlin and the clandestine support of the city's underground gay movement.
But how much of it is true? Playwright Doug Wright confronts this question by making himself a character in the show and portraying the creative crisis he faced when aspects of Charlotte's account seemed to conflict with the facts.
It's breathtaking to watch Wichmann switch between characters, each drawn with impeccable clarity. But Charlotte is his masterpiece. Speaking in a hypnotic singsongy lilt and armed with a knowing smile that is warm but also a bit sly, the actor makes Von Mahlsdorf empathetic, compelling and maddeningly elusive.
Director Morrie Piersol supports Wichmann with occasionally inspired blocking and key lighting and sound effects (the lighting design is by Michael Mauren; sound effects are by Ryan Corbett and Trey Pollard).
The show is not perfect. The "play about writing a play" conceit is a little too self-conscious and does not quite pay off in terms of dramatic tension.
Scenic design by Edwin Slipek Jr. (a senior contributing editor for Style) is dominated by the simple beauty of a few pieces of antique furniture, but they contrast jarringly with an indistinct, angular backdrop (a map of Berlin, perhaps?).
Fueled by Wichmann's bravura performance and capped off by one last treat as you walk out of the theater, this is a production that shouldn't be missed. S
"I Am My Own Wife" runs Thursday-Saturday nights at 8, with Sunday matinees at 4 p.m., through Oct. 7 at the Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St. Tickets are $10-$20 and can be purchased by calling 355-2001.