There is no better way to learn about historical figures than hear their stories from the figures themselves — “Straight from the horse’s mouth,” as it were. And that is the feeling that we had after attending Jay Kholos’ production of Wiesenthal (Nazi Hunter), written and performed by Tom Dugan and directed by Jenny Sullivan.
On Tuesday night (April 2nd), the audience at Raleigh NC’s A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater was transported to Austria, to the cluttered office of legendary Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal (1908-2005), a Nazi concentration camp survivor. It is his last day “on the job,” and we are his last group of visitors; at five o’clock he will be retired. After the war, Wiesenthal tells us, he refused to forget the atrocities perpetrated against the Jews and other minority groups.
Once liberated by the Allied troops, Wiesenthal began a dogged pursuit of former Nazi SS officers who were in hiding around the world. During the 55 years that Wiesenthal pursued these criminals, he assisted in bringing more than 1,100 war criminals to justice. Some, such as Adolph Eichmann (1906-62), who was one of the major architects of the Holocaust, took decades to find (16 years in Eichmann’s case).
In this one-man show, Tom Dugan does a terrific job portraying Simon Wiesenthal and several of the people whom he met along his journey (including Wiesenthal’s wife, his mother, his friends, and even a few of the war criminals as they take the stand at their trials). But Dugan shines brightest as the title character, an 85-year-old man in a rumpled suit with scrappy hair and a gentle wit (that he managed to preserve despite the horrors he has seen throughout his life).
The character’s accent, his posture, and the shuffling gait that Dugan has adopted are perfect — we found ourselves totally taken in. On this eve of his retirement, and while Wiesenthal places papers in boxes destined for a museum (for that is how well known he is), he discusses his career and his motivation for having spent so much of his time pursuing Nazis. It is not for revenge, he says, but to remember the 11 million people who died at the hands of the Nazis, and to obtain some sort of justice for them. As he asserts: unless we remember what happened, it will happen again.
In an interesting device, Dugan addressed the audience in the same manner that Wiesenthal addressed the many visitors who came to see him while he ran the Jewish Historical Documentation Centre in Austria. Several times, he asked the audience to answer questions in a call-and-response fashion. And when the phone on Wiesenthal’s onstage desk rang, we were told that it was his wife who had called to make sure he was going to make it to his retirement party. Preserving the illusion, he asked us to be quiet, so that she would not know that he had guests — again.
The elaborately realistic set established the tone for the evening, and deft lighting helped Tom Dugan transform himself into to new characters and to relocate in different settings as needed. Ultimately, Wiesenthal’s spirit, along with his perspective on life and on mankind, reminds us of the need for the individual to make a difference in the world. And if we should learn one thing, it is that we need to assert ourselves when needed, to have courage, and to refuse to surrender blind obedience to authority.
Of course, a show about Nazis and the Holocaust is heavy fare, but Wiesenthal had a lively perspective and a gentle wit; and even though the show does remind us of the sheer numbers of people who died and of the inhumane treatment that was thrust upon so many innocents, we do see that there can be justice in the end, that one man can certainly make a difference.
Ultimately, that’s an inspiring thought. By the way, there are a few keywords in this script: shame and trust. Watch for both; they are key to the shows message — Wiesenthal’s and Dugan’s.
We thoroughly enjoyed this production; it can be seen at venues across the country through June.
P.S. We also recommend attending the post-show talkback. Tom Dugan’s genius becomes even more apparent when he reappears onstage as himself — without his Wiesenthal posture, gait, and accent.
WIESENTHAL (NAZI HUNTER), written and performed by Tom Dugan (Jay Kholos, April 2 in the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater in Raleigh, NC).
SHOW: https://www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com/events/wiesenthal and https://www.facebook.com/events/1755963784505602/.
VIDEO PREVIEWS: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q6hRg19FcM4 and https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfQVdbCGmMS0lc56BT3QHsw.
Simon Wiesenthal (Nazi hunter, 1908-2005): https://www.britannica.com/biography/Simon-Wiesenthal (Encyclopædia Britannica), https://www.vwi.ac.at/ (Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0927622/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_Wiesenthal (Wikipedia).
Wiesenthal (Nazi Hunter) (2014 Off-Broadway play): https://wiesenthaltheshow.com/ (official website) and http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/5856 (Internet Off-Broadway Database).
Tom Dugan (playwright and performer): https://wiesenthaltheshow.com/ (official website), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/44856 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0240838/ (Internet Movie Database), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Dugan_(actor,_born_1961) (Wikipedia), https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfQVdbCGmMS0lc56BT3QHsw (YouTube).
Jenny Sullivan (director): http://www.directorjennysullivan.com/ (official website), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/5996 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jenny_Sullivan (Wikipedia).
Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.