“Wiesenthal: An Ordinary Man Who Did Extraordinary Things” demonstrates the reverse of the proverb about evil triumphing when good people do nothing. It is about a man who did everything he could to fight evil and those who would perpetrate it.
With grit and humor, the play reveals how years spent in German concentration camps forged a young architectural engineer into an unstoppable post-war Nazi hunter.
“Wiesenthal” wants to give the audience something to think about, but mostly, playwright and actor Tom Dugan says, “Wiesenthal” is entertainment – a piece of provocative theater, not a lecture.
For the audience, no historical expertise is required.
“You can be an expert on the subject of World War II, or you can know nothing about the Holocaust,” Dugan said in a phone interview from his California home. “I like to say it’s like a spy thriller.”
Thriller indeed. The 90-minute show, which runs without intermission, takes place as Simon Wiesenthal is on the verge of catching up with his “last Nazi” after having helped bring more than a thousand Nazi war criminals to justice. The year is 2003, and time has placed many of the officers, guards and others who committed the worst of the Nazi war crimes beyond capture or redemption. Wiesenthal himself is 94 – an energetic 94, but also aware that time is running out.
The setting is Wiesenthal’s office at the Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna, where he is welcoming a group of students (the audience) to continue his other lifelong quest: to assure that the world never again becomes complacent about prejudice that can grow into socially sanctioned bigotry, oppression and genocide. As Dugan frankly admits, the lesson is as relevant today as it was the day the concentration camps were liberated.
“Wiesenthal’s greatest legacy was not so much the Nazi hunting but as an educator,” Dugan said, “making people understand the importance of not letting these horrors be forgotten, and, no matter which horrors they are, that people need to be held responsible.”
Wiesenthal’s quest for justice propelled him forward, while his personality and sense of humor paved the way.
People responded to him because he was so charismatic, Dugan said, and he wants that to come across in his hour and a half on stage.
“One of the most important aspects of the play comes from Wiesenthal himself,” Dugan said, noting that Wiesenthal dabbled in amateur comedy before the war. “He is charming. He is entertaining – and his humor is jolting. Audiences wind up spending half the show laughing.”
The range has made the show a success on Broadway and around the country. What excites Dugan the most is how often people feel a connection with what is happening on stage.
“It’s not important what I feel; it’s what the audience feels. All the time, I see people nodding their heads as it resonates,” he said. “The point is to remind the audience of who they are.”
He recalls a show in Florida where a man in the audience told Dugan who he was:
Wiesenthal is telling about how the concentration camp commandant Franz Stangl was captured after a former Gestapo officer said he would give information about Stangl in exchange for the equivalent of $7,000. Wiesenthal was able to hand over a check for the amount and Stangl was captured.
“I always do a talk-back after the show,” Dugan said, “and one man in the audience stood up and said ‘I liked that story about the $7,000.’ I asked why and he said, ‘Because I’m the guy who wrote the check!’ ”
That’s representative of the positive feedback he has gotten on the show, Dugan said. Among those who approve of it are Wiesenthal’s daughter and others who worked with him.
Equally rewarding, though, is the response he gets from students for whom World War II and the Holocaust are distant history.
“It makes me cringe to see how often students are turned off to history because of the poor way it’s presented,” Dugan said.
He believes that theater is an ideal way to make history alive again, and says this show and others he has written about Frederick Douglass and Robert E. Lee are historically accurate, albeit with some theatrical license in the dialogue.
“All of my plays are appropriate for those 12 and up,” Dugan says.
The response has been great, even among teens who were “prepared to be bored out of their minds,” he said.
His favorite review came from a 14-year-old who admitted after one show, “Wow. I thought this was going to suck.”
People seeing “Wiesenthal” at 710 Main this week will have the chance to tell Dugan what they think. He still does talk-backs after each performance – partly, he says, to see how people respond when he comes out sans fat-suit and makeup, as his trim 54-year-old, Irish-Catholic raised self (although he does shave his full head of hair for the shows instead of wearing a bald cap).
“I come out and they don’t know it’s me,” he said. He did add that, after doing the show for eight years, “I use less and less makeup every year.”