The narrator of "Who Am I This Time?", a storm window salesman, has gotten stuck with the job of directing the North Crawford Mask and Wig Club's amateur production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. He has never really directed before.
His one condition is that he can cast Harry Nash, whom he considers to be the only real actor in the entire town, as the lead, Stanley Kowalski. (He refers to this role as "Marlon Brando," since Brando played Stanley in Elia Kazan's Broadway production of the play and the subsequent film) (15).
When the producers agree, the narrator sets out for Miller's Hardware Store, where Harry works as a clerk. On his way, however, he stops at the telephone company to complain about a bill. There, he meets a beautiful woman, Helene Shaw, who is in town for eight weeks to oversee the town's transition to a new phone company procedure. Struck by her sweetness, he asks her to audition for Stella Kowalski, Stanley's wife in the play. She says it is the first time anyone has ever asked her to participate in a community event in one of the towns she is assigned to, and so accepts his offer.
Next, he goes to Miller's Hardware Store, to confirm that Harry Nash will audition for Stanley. Harry asks the same question he asks of everyone who wants him to be in a play: "Who am I this time?" (17).
The narrator holds try-outs for the play, knowing ahead of time that he plans to cast Harry Nash, and hoping Helene Shaw will make a good Stella. He also explains that Harry is generally a timid fellow, but is able to full embody his roles on the stage, in a way that amazes everyone. In fact, Harry tends to become his character for the entire run of a play, and then change back to his normal self afterwards.
During Harry's audition, Doris Sawyer reads the part of Stella, and both she and the storm window salesman are overcome by his transformation into the brutish character. Unfortunately, Helene is a horrible actress. Doris tries to inspire Helene by asking whether she has ever been in love, but Helene can only remember falling in love with movie stars, since she has always moved around so much. They send her away, but no one else at the auditions impresses them as Stella.
The narrator and Doris decide to have Helene read across from Harry, hoping he might inspire some honest reaction from her. When they call Helene back upstairs, she has been crying, and explains that she cannot act because she has never been in love. Then Harry enters, completely embodying Stanley's excessive machismo, and they read one of the play's fight scenes together. Helene is absolutely transported and confounded, and Doris and the narrator decide Harry can inspire honesty from her.
In rehearsals, Harry and Helene work wonderfully together. The part of Blanche is played by Lydia Miller, whose husband owns Miller's Hardware Store. One day, she warns the narrator that Helene has clearly fallen in love with Harry, but does not realize that she has only seen him play Stanley: "'Think of what it's going to do to that girl when she discovers what Harry really is.' She corrected herself. 'What Harry really isn't'" (24).
The narrator worries about telling Helene the truth, but overhears Lydia's attempt to do so. Helene not only does not comprehend Lydia's point, but in fact grows hostile towards the warning. Meanwhile, the cast soon learns that Helene has requested a permanent transfer to North Crawford, presumably hoping to be with Harry once the play is over.
On opening night, the play is a huge success. Helene receives a dozen red roses from her coworkers, but finds Harry has disappeared when she turns to give him one. Later, the narrator finds her in her dressing room, wondering what she did to offend Harry.
The next night, Helene's performance is less profound, and Harry again leaves immediately after the show.
On the final night, Saturday, Helene performs her best show yet. When Harry tries to leave after the curtain call, she will not let go of his hand. She asks him to take her to the cast party, but he refuses, having transformed back into his nervous self. Helene makes him promise to wait for her there while she fetches him a present from her dressing room.
The present she gives him is a copy of Romeo and Juliet. It is marked at her favorite scene, which she asks Harry to read with her on the spot. He begins to read the romantic scene with her, and naturally becomes passionate as he embodies Romeo. Still reading, they leave together. They marry a week later, continuing to read plays together in order to keep Harry social and engaged with her.
A while later, the narrator returns to the phone company because the billing machine has made another mistake. There, he asks Helene how she and Harry are doing. She seems quite happy with their situation: "I've been married to Othello, been loved by Faust and been kidnapped by Paris. Wouldn't you say I was the luckiest girl in town?" (28). The narrator agrees, and then asks if she and Harry would like to star in another play that he's been asked to direct.
"Who Am I This Time?" uses a convenient narrator, or a character who is able to comment objectively on a variety of social situations. His position makes it possible for him to observe a story that is happening outside himself. In this case, the narrator's position as director allows him to tell the story of Helene and Harry, thereby allowing Vonnegut to avoid psychologically explaining them (as he would have to if he centered the story around their perspectives.) In many ways, this allows the reader to pull the themes implicitly from the story, since the narrator does not attempt to interpret them. For instance, when Harry asks him, "Who am I this time?", the narrator comments that, "it was kind of sad, if you think about it," suggesting that the reader ought to feel sorry for Harry's situation, but without explaining the reasons why (17).
Harry Nash's character is used to develop the theme of individuality; in this case, his individuality is supplanted by whatever role he is playing at the time. In 'real' life, Harry is almost deliberately a blank slate. He does not know who his parents were, suggesting that he never settled on a firm sense of identity. As a result, he is unable to interact with anyone, including with potential female partners. He not only fails to understand himself, but is frightened of declaring an identity of any sort. What is "sad" about Harry is that he lacks the strength to be anyone. Despite his talent, his own individuality frightens him.
Helene Shaw is extremely similar, expect that she explicitly wants to change this part of herself. Her lack of identity results from having always lived on the outside of a community. When the narrator asks her to play Stella Kowlaski, she accepts, commenting that it is "the first time anybody ever asked me to participate in any community thing" (17). She has always traveled from town to town, "always a stranger," and as a result does not believe her personality worthy of attention (16). As she explains, she even traveled around as a child, because of her father's job. Because she has never settled on her identity, she has never been in love.
Knowing how much Vonnegut prizes individuality, it is likely we are supposed to feel sad about such suppression of individuality. Helene's conflict is described using the metaphor of a bottle. When she explains to the narrator and Doris why she has been crying after her initial audition, she says, "When I meet somebody nice in real life, I feel as though I were in some kind of big bottle, as though I couldn't touch that person, no matter how hard I tried" (21). What the passage reveals is that Helene - and arguably Harry as well - does not inherently lack individuality, but instead refuses to let herself feel worthy of an individual personality.
The story suggests that art provides us an outlet through which to find our personality. Harry is enlivened by acting, because it allows him to access parts of himself he otherwise cannot express. He appreciates the opportunity to become someone else, under the safe confines of a community play. Helene, too, is enthralled by the power of acting. After reading through the fight scene with Harry during her audition, she is completely emotionally vulnerable: "She wasn't in any bottle any more. There wasn't any bottle to hold her up and keep her safe and clean. The bottle was gone" (23). Neither Harry nor Helene is able to love or feel without the inspiration of playing another character.
While the story is touching in that way, Vonnegut's poignant humor emerges when the couple needs play-acting in order to live the rest of their lives. The idea that two people would be able to maintain a marriage relationship by never being themselves around each other is funny, but also speaks to the deep isolation both characters feel. They are alienated from themselves, from their own personalities. Harry does not have a personality outside the characters he takes on, and Helene has never felt a part of any community or been able to be in love. As a result, they cannot consider themselves worthy without those other identities.
Whether Vonnegut means to suggest that all humans enact some version of this routine is unclear in the story. One could argue that all people act out different personalities, being the lover, the fighter, the charismatic speaker, etc., whenever any particular situation calls for it. This interpretation is supported by the fact that many of the other characters - especially the storm window salesman narrator - seem to lack much unique personality. Perhaps Harry and Helene have simply found a way to amplify a natural process that they cannot realize on their own. On the other hand, Harry and Helene are such singular characters that the story might best be read as a comment on the alienation from the self that is so common in the modern age.
This latter interpretation is supported by the narrator's suggestion that Helene's outcast status is linked to the technological aspect of her job working at the telephone company. He jokes that they will all have to worry when machines start delivering themselves, making her job unnecessary, but she does not get the joke. The narrator then comments that, "She seemed kind of numb, almost a machine herself, an automatic phone-company politeness machine" (16). The solution she finds in order to be with Harry - to continue to act out characters in order to interact - is in accordance with this machine-like personality. The power of art then works in stark contrast to the sterile efficiency of machines. Considering how often Vonnegut suggests that we allow machines to rob of us of our individuality, this interpretation is also supported by the story.