Early on in his new one-man show, Nazi Hunter – Simon Wiesenthal, writer-actor Tom Dugan announces, “If you’re here to cry, go home now. Go watch soap operas.
“I’m here,” he promises, “for you to be educated and entertained.”
That’s a bold statement for a play tackling one of the 20th century’s most horrific tragedies — the murder of more than six million Jews and an undetermined number of other “undesirables” during World War II — and spotlighting the man who dedicated his life to commemorating its victims and bringing its perpetrators to justice. In a post-Schindler’s List and Life Is Beautiful world, the risk of Holocaust fatigue syndrome is high.
But Dugan follows the lead of Wiesenthal himself, who, through charisma, humor, a keen understanding of the media and a fine-tuned ability to incite moral outrage, kept the Holocaust in the public eye for 60 years. The resulting tale of this “Jewish James Bond” aims to stay “user-friendly,” leaving audiences not only educated and moved, but energized.
Dugan, a playwright and actor, has appeared on several TV series, including Bones, Friends and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Nazi Hunter marks his fifth one-man show, preceded by the historically based Robert E. Lee – Shades of Gray and Frederick Douglass – In the Shadow of Slavery. Directed by Jenny Sullivan, the production enjoyed an Ovation-nominated run at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills.
An Austrian Jew who survived the concentration camps and at least two suicide attempts, Wiesenthal lost 89 extended family members during World War II. In 1947, he and 30 colleagues opened the Jewish Historical Documentation Center in Vienna to track down fugitive Nazis and build evidence for future war crimes trials.
From his office, Wiesenthal combed through thousands of documents and kept in touch with a vast network of friends, acquaintances and informers. Among his most famous cases was the capture of Karl Silberbauer, the police officer who arrested Anne Frank. By the time of his death in 2005 at 96, Wiesenthal had helped capture hundreds of war criminals.
Nazi Hunter takes place on the day of Wiesenthal’s retirement in April, 2003. An inveterate teacher, he has invited a group of students into his shabby office for one final lesson. In between anecdotes from his life, Wiesenthal engages the audience in hunting down one last fugitive — Alois Brunner, a Nazi who escaped to Syria. But the man who has answered “millions of questions in his life” has some unfinished business, Dugan says.
“There’s one question that he’s forgotten to ask.”
While drafting his script, Dugan gained access to special archives at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, including transcripts of several unpublished interviews. The windfall of information proved both a luxury and a burden, negating the possibility of any “artistic nip and tuck,” he says.
So the 6-foot, 50-year-old actor commissioned a padded suit, shaved a bald patch into his full head of hair, learned to apply old-age makeup and practiced a European dialect. As a result, many audience members don’t recognize him when he bounds back onstage for a talkback.
During the show, Dugan engages in give-and-take with the audience, inviting them to step into the shoes of Wiesenthal’s students. The play is geared toward ages 12 and older, but you needn’t know much about Wiesenthal or even the Holocaust to enjoy it. Four matinees have been set aside for local high school students, and the Ventura chapter of the Jewish Federation is sponsoring several performances.
Dugan, who is Irish Catholic, was partially inspired to write the play based on his own family: his wife is Jewish, as well as their two sons. But the play is also intimately connected to his personal history. His father, who received the Bronze Battle Star and the Purple Heart after serving in Patton’s 3rd Army, was among the American GIs who liberated the German concentration camp Buchenwald.
As children of the Depression, Dugan says, the American soldiers “knew what hunger was.” They were horrified to see guards enforcing starvation on helpless victims.
Years later, when Dugan observed that his father must really hate Germans, he never forgot his father’s response. “I don’t judge people by what group they belong to. I judge them by their behavior.”
That rejection of collective guilt — echoed by Wiesenthal — so startled Dugan that he has spent a good portion of his adult life “dissecting it, portraying it, analyzing it” through his plays.
Wiesenthal’s contribution has been so profound, Dugan says, most of us don’t even realize it. Until the 20th century, most wars ended with a common agreement to forget and move on — and so the same atrocities occurred again and again.
After World War II, Dugan says, “The rules were changed as to what it means to be a human being. If you break the rules, even in war, for the rest of your life you will be hunted down by society. It’s never happened before. It’s because of people like Wiesenthal.”
Nazi Hunter – Simon Wiesenthal, through March 11, Rubicon Theatre Company, 1006 East Main St., Ventura. For information and tickets: 667-2900 or www.rubicontheatre.org/.