The trials of 95-year-old Hubert Zafke, a former Auschwitz paramedic, and of 94-year-old Reinhold Hanning, a former guard at the death camp, have already started. Mid-April will see 93-year-old former Auschwitz guard Ernst Tremmel tried in court. It is quite possible, given the ages of the accused and the era pool they’re drawn from, that these will be the last individuals tried for their Holocaust-related crimes.
What would famed concentration camp survivor/Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal think of this? After all, he spent his life’s work, six decades in total, chasing down 1,100 Nazi war criminals and bringing them to justice. His death at 96 in 2005, two years after his retirement, means we’ll never know how he’d feel today, but perhaps thanks to Tom Dugan, we may get a glimpse at what Wiesenthal was feeling and thinking at the end of his career. The last full day, to be exact.
Dugan’s one-man play, called simply Wiesenthal, takes place as the Nazi hunter speaks to an assemblage of visitors to his office in The Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna, Austria. Dugan, who wrote and stars in the critically lauded play, uses the 90 minutes to alternate between a personal memoir of Wiesenthal’s time during and after the camps and the insight of a detective story into a few of his more memorable Nazi-hunting investigations.
In his modest, cluttered office (designed with the well-worn look of a space used for decades thanks to scenic designer Beowulf Boritt), Wiesenthal welcomes us, the audience, as his final visiting group. Final because at 94, Wiesenthal has reluctantly decided it’s time to retire and finally spend more time with his beloved wife, daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. But for now he knows we’ve come to hear the story of a famous man and his illustrious work. “But it’s not my goal to produce tears,” he says. It’s knowledge that Wiesenthal wants us to walk away with. Knowledge about what would turn a nation into haters, elite soldiers into genocidal monsters, some victims into people who look only forward, and others, like Wiesenthal, into obsessive justice seekers.
But despite the assurance of no tears, there’s plenty of watering up to be done in both joy and sorrow thanks to a script that smartly injects sweet humor, touching warmth and wry deprecation into a tale of horror and retribution, all of it portrayed with gripping charisma by Dugan as Wiesenthal.
“Some call me the Jewish James Bond,” opens Wiesenthal, explaining that he always likes to start things off with a joke. The difference, he says, is that unlike with 007, martinis give him a headache and his weapons of choice are not loaded guns but rather persistence, publicity and paperwork. It’s a joke that Dugan easily makes charming with his softly pleasant Austrian accent, "who, me?" shrugs and the impish sparkle in his eye. In fact, Dugan’s entire physical portrayal of Wiesenthal is set at level ten of avuncular charm. Dugan, under Jenny Sullivan’s sensitive and energetic direction, flits about the office with the mental vigor of a young buck who also suffers the tremors and hidden aches of a man far past his golden years. A slight limp, which we later learn quite possibly resulted from a toe being cut off by a Nazi as punishment, is especially effective in winning our compassionate affection for this wounded yet heroic figure.
It’s impossible to understand Wiesenthal’s present without delving into his past, and Dugan dips his writer's toe into the well for brief, arresting flashbacks of what transpired during the war. We watch as Wiesenthal agonizes over the Nazis’ taking his mother away; we listen to him send his unusually blond-haired, blue-eyed Jewish wife off to Warsaw thinking she’ll be safe there; we hold our breath as he describes the time he almost lost his will to keep going. Dugan plays these scenes out for us succinctly, without undo melodrama and with the aid of terrifically atmospheric lighting (Joel E. Silver), allowing the experiences to resonate rather than sucker-punch.
But these are stories we’ve heard in one form or another from any number of sources, and while the "never forget" notion is powerful here, it’s the Nazi-hunting narrative we’ve really come to see. Dugan knows this and makes sure we get our fill. In fact, not only does Wiesenthal entertainingly relay in spy-thriller fashion how he came to bring Franz Stangl, the former commandant of the Treblinka death camp, to trial and miraculously find the officer who arrested Anne Frank; Dugan has Wiesenthal trying for one more Nazi capture even as he is hours away from retiring. “Maybe if I could do this one thing, I won’t be ashamed to walk out this door,” he says.
Shame plays a large part in Dugan’s script and is Wiesenthal’s explanation of everything, from how normal people become savages (not just Germans, he explains; we all have the potential to become killers given the right shame circumstances) to why he himself can’t really trust anyone or let the war go. Without getting too deep into armchair psychiatry, Dugan posits that Wiesenthal’s obsessive war-criminal-hunting activities stem from his inability to “fix the problem” for the 89 members of his family who perished at the hands of the Nazis. As one of the survivors, Wiesenthal tells us, he had no choice but to dedicate his life to memorializing the millions who were killed in the camps and hunt down their murderers.
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Ultimately, this isn’t an intimate investigation into what makes Wiesenthal tick or even a balanced portrayal of a man many called difficult and whom some accused of taking credit for others’ work. This is Wiesenthal as a wart-free, affable, morally principled, deeply committed man reflecting back on a career that no one can claim wasn’t righteously purposeful and valiantly impressive.
This is also a chance to see a terrific portrayal of one of modern Judaism’s heroes by of all people an Irish Catholic kid from New Jersey. In the program notes, Dugan explains that it wasn’t Wiesenthal’s Nazi hunting that attracted him to his story, but rather the man’s message of tolerance that went along with it. Justice yes, but justice so that we could all learn to do better in the future.
It’s a message that Dugan slings hard with great success in the play, and it’s a message that any audience member, of no matter what cultural background, could benefit from hearing. Wiesenthal may not be a Jewish James Bond, but this is a show that shakes and stirs us awake with humor, heartache, humanity and hope.
Wiesenthal runs through April 3 at the Kaplan Theatre, 5601 South Braeswood. For tickets, visit erjcchouston.org/theatre or call 713-551-7255. $15-$28.