Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Dugan's performance is galvanizing, and his play judiciously selects episodes from Wiesenthal's life, which he relates to us with humility and, surprisingly, humor. The humility is not false modesty. Wiesenthal knows the value of his accomplishments, but is painfully aware that in fifty-seven years, his work led to finding and bringing to trial some 1,000 of over 20,000 individuals identified as war criminals. As he tells us with complete sincerity, "Five percent. I am ashamed of that number." The humor comes from his survivor's instinct that intuitively sees the irony and quirkiness in the darkest of life's corners, laughter being a great buffer against madness.
Dugan is not Jewish. His program notes state that he was inspired by his father, a veteran who lived with shrapnel in his body as the result of his wounds received at the Battle of the Bulge. When, as a child, Dugan learned of his father's heroism, he said "Boy, Dad, you must really hate Germans." His father's response was that he did not. He did not judge all Germans or any other group collectively, but only individuals based on their own decisions and behavior. Like his father, Simon Wiesenthal did not believe in collective guilt. He did not want to punish all Germans, but to find those whose specific acts of cruelty branded them as war criminals. He did not seek retribution, but justice. Wiesenthal also felt compelled to acknowledge the eleven million systematically killed by the Third Reich: six million Jews, but also five million gypsies, Poles, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and others. Dugan was moved by the similarity between Wiesenthal's outlook and his father's, and this spurred his interest in the man dubbed by some "the great Nazi hunter," and by others, "the Jewish James Bond."
In fact, Wiesenthal was neither of those. He was a meticulous collector of facts, tidbits of information, interviews, reports of sightings, and anything else that could pinpoint the location of one of the suspects whom he would bring to justice. Others, such as police or military officers, actually went to the identified location and made the arrests. Wiesenthal's work was done primarily in his office, the Jewish Historical Documentation Center, located in Linz, Austria. This is the play's setting, a cluttered and dusty desk surrounded by book shelves, file cabinets and bankers boxes.
It is 2003, and we are welcomed by the great man as the last visitors to his office. Tomorrow he will be retired, at long last, and the contents of his office are to be packed and shipped to The Museum of Tolerance in the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. There is no fourth wall, as Wiesenthal speaks directly to the audienceat one point even offering to share the grapes he begins to snack on, and asking us to respond to some basic questions he raises. He tells us how the Nazi regime was able to gain traction in a Germany ravaged as the loser in World War I, and how Adolf Hitler's charisma enabled him to convince Germans that Jews, and not the German people, were responsible for their miserable conditions. He recalls to us his separation from his beloved wife in an effort to help her escape, his internment in work camps, nearing death from the toll of endless labor, and at last the liberation by U.S. forces. He explains how, though trained as an architect, he found work documenting evidence related to Nazi atrocities and how this led to his life-long mission to find and bring those responsible to justice.
We hear insider accounts of the hunt for several of those individuals. Especially powerful is the search for Adolf Eichmann, responsible for implementation of Hitler's "Final Solution." Wiesenthal tells us he was disappointed when Eichmann was found. He expected a monster, a looming presence that was the living embodiment of evil. Instead, Eichmann was a mousy man with the look of an accountant. In his description, and Dugan's delivery, he makes the chilling realization that evil is not easy to see on the surface. It can be anywhere, and lurk within anyone. Another powerful story is the hunt for the officer who arrested Anne Frank and her family. This was necessary, Wiesenthal tells us, to prove to disaffected Austrian and German youth who believed their parents' statements that Anne Frank was a fiction, that the holocaust was a fiction. When the officer who made the arrest was found, and confessed his actions, there was proof to convince the youth, and expose their parents' lies.
During the play, Wiesenthal excuses himself from time to time to make phone calls related to a Nazi officer he is very close to locating. This gives us an illustration of the way he went about his work, and the fervor as he races against timethis being the last day of his office. We too are in suspense, wanting to find out if one more of the 20,000 names will be made to face justice. Director Jenny Sullivan keeps the play moving swiftly, feeling much less than its ninety minute running time, conveying the feeling that we are not at the end of a play, but the end of a mission that must, somehow, continue. Yet we know he is only one man, and is near his own end. As he tells us, his wife is home looking forward to him "finally coming home from the war."
The physical production for this production is top drawer in every way. Tony Award winning scenic designer Beowulf Boritt has amassed a fully realistic office, with a large map with Jewish stars of different sizes indicating the locations of concentration camps, drawing our attention (the map is based on a photograph of the actual map from Wiesenthal's office). Alex Jaeger has designed a suitable costume, a fat suit that adds fifty pounds to Dugan's slender frame. Joel E. Silver's lighting and Shane Rettig's sound designs provide the feeling of each place and experience Wiesenthal describes.
Wiesenthal gives powerful testimony about the way in which one person, with courage and patience, can make a difference. Dugan has expressed the importance of his play as a vehicle for education, especially for younger generations for whom stories about World War II and the holocaust are not grounded in experiences of their parents or grandparents. It is crucial that knowledge of what happened is passed on, for only then, Wiesenthal tell us, can we hope to not have it repeated. In a society that mistakes "fake news" for facts, disputes proven evidence-based science, and denies the truth of historical records, it is especially important to learn from those who fought to bring truth to light. Thankfully, Tom Dugan's Wiesenthal offers a dramatically rewarding platform for that truth.
Wiesenthal continues through April 30, 2017, at the Illusion Theater, 528 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets are $30.00 - $45.00. For tickets and information call 612- 339-4944 or go to illusiontheater.org.
Writer: Tom Dugan; Director: Jenny Sullivan; Set Design: Beowulf Boritt; Lighting Design: Joel E. Silver; Costume Design: Alex Jaeger; Sound Design: Shane Rettig; Production Manage: Mind the Gap, Inc.; Production Stage Manager: Katherine Barrett; Associate Producers: David Bryant and Jeff Rosen.
Cast: Tom Dugan (Simon Wiesenthal)