One would like to think the Holocaust is not a matter for speculation, debate, conjecture or imagination.
Like two plus two equals four, the sky is up and water is wet, the Holocaust is a fact. It happened.
But, of course, we don’t live in quite such a world in which facts have absolute standing. For reasons of anti-Semitism and certainly anti-Israel hatred and fulminations, there are strong veins of Holocaust denial to be found across the East and across the West, too.
Which is why, perhaps now more than ever, the long-established genre of Holocaust plays and films are critical to our culture. And why a play like Wiesenthal — running through Feb. 22 at the Acorn Theatre — is especially crucial. Written by and starring actor Tom Dugan, directed by Jenny Sullivan and produced by Tony-winner Daryl Roth and Karyl Lynn Burns, Wiesenthal recalls the man known as the “Jewish James Bond.” By pluck, luck and extraordinary perseverance he survived the Holocaust; some 89 members of his own family perished. An architect by trade, he built up a lifelong reputation for meticulous research that turned him into one of the most fearsome Nazi hunters who ever lived. If you were a part, even a relatively trivial one, of the sick genocidal circus against world Jewry, he was after you — and he would not relent until he got you. It was a fact. Just ask Adolf Eichmann.
Tom Dugan received the Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Circle Award and three Ovation nominations for his portrayal of Simon Wiesenthal. Mr. Dugan’s Los Angeles and regional theatre credits include Amadeus, Misery, The Man Who Came To Dinner, and On Golden Pond (starring Jack Klugman). His TV and Film credits include Friends, Bones, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Kindergarten Cop, Dave, The Naked Gun, and his personal favorite Leprechaun III. He is also an accomplished playwright whose critically acclaimed one-man play Oscar to Oscar, Robert E. Lee — Shades of Gray, The Ghosts of Mary Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass — In the Shadow of Slavery…
For tickets to Wiesenthal, click here.
And now, questions Tom Dugan has never been asked:
What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
“Did Wiesenthal really have the great sense of humor that you present in this play, or did you add that to his personality in order to make the dark subject matter easier to digest?” It was a perceptive question. If Simon Wiesenthal was not an amateur standup comedian before the war I don’t think he would have succeeded in his work. It was his lightheartedness that drew people toward him. This, I believe, combined with his sharp mind and determined nature, was the key to his longevity in tracking down Nazi war criminals, and educating the public about the value of tolerance.
What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
First, you have to understand that this man was not joking. “How in the world could an Irish Catholic have the mentality to write this Wiesenthal?” Then he answered his own question by saying “Well, you married a Jewish girl so she must have educated you.” It was a breathtaking display of prejudice.
What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
I do talkbacks every night, it’s wonderful, I love them, such thoughtful, heartfelt questions from articulate educated people of all ages. A 20-year-old girl stood up one night, trembling, with tears rolling down her cheeks: “Did this…really…happen?” It seems that her parents had told her that the Holocaust was a big exaggeration. The audience was horrified. When I asked her why she thought her parents would say something like that she explained that she was the great-granddaughter of Adolf Eichmann. The whole room just leaned away from her in revulsion. But then an amazing thing happened — everyone, including me, had to practice the rejection of “collective guilt,” which is something Wiesenthal preached all of his life. We all calmed down, realizing that this girl had done nothing wrong, and were able to learn a bit about her family’s history after World War II. The girl, whose last name is indeed Eichmann, thanked me for writing the play and for being kind enough not to judge her because of her family history. It was a great friggin’ night at the theatre!
What would Simon Wiesenthal make of the rise of anti-Semitism in 2015 Europe? What would he want to be done about it?
I am always careful to not speak for Simon Wiesenthal, but I do know that he believed in the good of mankind, and he understood that the human savage will always be a part of us. I don’t think he would be shocked by these recent terrorist attacks in Paris and elsewhere, but he would be very pleased at the huge outpouring of support for the victims.
As a writer and performer of solo plays about great historical figures, how much must you like your subject?
I believe you actually need to love the character in some way to play them or write about them. Sometimes that’s very difficult. An example is Mary Lincoln, who I believe didn’t love herself. This was by all accounts a selfish woman — unlikable, many would say. Who wants to spend an evening with someone like that? After a lot of research and thought it occurred to me that Mary was, emotionally, a frightened child, who was given far more than her fair share of tragedy. Three of her sons died in their childhood, and, of course, her husband died in the prime of his life. Her limited ability to cope with adversity led her to a fascination with the occult. Her desperate need to reconnect with her loved ones who made her feel safe, is heartbreaking. Because I developed an enormous amount of empathy for her and yes, love, I was able to write The Ghosts of Mary Lincoln.
To what degree must you identify or explore the flaws in the character(s) you play? For instance, Simon Wiesenthal’s achievements were world-renowned, deservedly so. What was his greatest flaw or weakness?
Well the Simon in my play — because after all, although he is based on the real person, he is a character I’ve created for the stage — has a tendency to try too hard. In the play he often regrets having said something or wishes he could have expressed himself better. In Wiesenthal his sense of urgency to “get it right” is heightened by the fact that this is his last chance to reach out to young people. It’s pretty heart-wrenching, even if I do say so myself.
Simon Wiesenthal and Kurt Waldheim are granted a single day back among the living. You’re granted a chance to spend time with them — provided Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is allowed in the room, too. Do you go? Can you describe the conversation?
Of course this could be an entire play by itself — a No Exit sort of piece. I would go only if I could bring my Monopoly game. I don’t know what would be said but we could all battle against each other and no one would get hurt.