Los Angeles-based actor and writer Tom Dugan is the brainchild behind “Wiesenthal,” the successful one-man show based on the famous Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal. After the end of World War II, Wiesenthal dedicated his life to bringing more than 1,100 Nazi war criminals to justice, even aiding in the capture of Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief orchestrators of the Holocaust. So inspired by Wiesenthal’s legacy and in part out of a desire to educate the upcoming generations, Tom Dugan wrote and now stars in “Wiesenthal,” appearing at the Earl and Rachel Smith Strand Theatre in Marietta May 29 to June 2.
During Dugan’s decade-long run with the show, he’s met one of Wiesenthal’s closest friends and confidantes and even came face-to-face with Eichmann’s great-granddaughter. We sat down with him to talk more about the show and a few of those more unusual encounters.
AJT: What’s your background and how did the idea to do a play about Simon Wiesenthal surface?
Dugan: Well I’ve been an actor for 35 years in Hollywood. I’m actually Irish Catholic. I’ve been married for 27 years and my wife is Jewish. My two boys are Jewish, and tolerance plays a big part in our house.
My dad was a decorated World War II veteran and he received the purple heart and the bronze battle star. He helped to liberate a concentration camp called Langenstein in Germany when he was 19. His service impressed me, and I wanted to honor it. I had so many questions, common questions for my generation and for my kid’s generation. How in the world could this have happened? How could one small group dominate and almost completely destroy a much larger group like this? I began studying Wiesenthal’s life. I wanted to help educate the coming generations on how this could have happened. … I was fascinated with Wiesenthal’s ability to break it down. It’s the absolute essential lesson that must be learned. We all have inside of us what he called a human savage. For that to be awakened and nourished, it starts out with a hunger. We’re only animals, and we’re only capable of what every animal is capable of. Desperation is what will wake up that part of each of us.
AJT: It’s a one-man show and you play Wiesenthal. How’s that experience been for you?
Dugan: When I first began the show, I was a 45-year-old Irish Catholic actor playing a 95-year-old Austrian Jewish Holocaust survivor. It was quite a stretch. I’m also a pretty slim guy, and he was about 70 pounds heavier. It still takes about an hour to finish in makeup. I used to shave the top of my head, but then it started to thin, so now Wiesenthal has hair in the play. I also wear a fat suit.
AJT: Are there any elements of Wiesenthal’s life that stand out in your mind?
Dugan: There are so many good scenes; it’s like choosing a favorite child. But one thing I want to say is that I don’t shortchange the horrors of the Holocaust. However, I don’t go so far into detail that I shock people into no longer listening. The most surprising thing is that before the war, Wiesenthal was a stand-up comedian. A lot of people don’t know that. He was a very funny guy. The audience is often surprised that they laugh in this play just as much as they cry.
AJT: Have you had any memorable audience reactions or encounters?
Dugan: So many. There are two instances, in particular, that are almost unbelievable. I was doing the show in Florida, and there’s a story in the play about how Wiesenthal caught Franz Stangl, a commander of two of the more horrific concentration camps. Wiesenthal paid an informant in the form of a $7,000 check to get his location. I was doing a question-and-answer session after the play, and a man raised his hand. He said he liked the story about the check. It was an odd part of the play to pinpoint, and I asked him why. “I’m the guy who wrote the check,” he said. It was Marty Rosen, Wiesenthal’s best friend and attorney.
Apparently, Marty had seen the show many times. When he’d heard there was a play about Wiesenthal, he was immediately skeptical about how anyone could possibly get it right. He’d assumed it would probably be terrible and he’d have to file a lawsuit to shut it down. He actually became a champion of the show though.
And then I’ll never forget it. It was at another talk after the show. A young girl sat right in the front, and I noticed she was very emotional. She said she had no idea the Holocaust was ever this bad because she’d always been taught that it was an exaggeration. The audience was so angry at her comments; I thought they were ready to throw her out. She really didn’t seem to know though. It wasn’t anti-Semitism – just complete ignorance. Then she told me her name. It was Sammy Eichmann. Adolf Eichmann was her great-grandfather. Her family had obviously always downplayed the horrors of the Holocaust, and she just didn’t know.
AJT: So what would you say to people on the fence about seeing the show?
Dugan: When I started out with the show, I’d meet husband and wife survivors. A couple years later, it was just the female survivors. Now if I ever meet survivors, it’s people who were very young children in the camps. Most have passed away. People need to know what happened to them.
Tickets to “Wiesenthal” start at $45. Visit WWW.WiesenthalTheShow.Com for more information.