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27 Feb 2019

History Repeating? One-Man Play ‘Wiesenthal (Nazi Hunter)’ Offers Valuable Lessons

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Tom Dugan as Simon Wiesenthal. Tom Dugan as Simon Wiesenthal.

“The history of man is the history of crimes, and history can repeat. So information is a defense. Through this we can build, we must build, a defense against repetition.” —Simon Wiesenthal

Tom Dugan is bringing his one-man off-Broadway show Wiesenthal (Nazi Hunter) to Palm Desert for two shows—one already sold out—as the start of a nationwide tour.

When I spoke to Dugan, I had to ask: Why did he tackle a subject as heavy as the Holocaust for this one-man show?

“My father was a product of the Great Depression, and when he fought at the end of World War II, he went to liberate one of the death camps,” Dugan said. “He saw all these people starving and dying. He saw that there was plenty of food in the reserves for all these people. (The Nazis) chose not to give it to them—and instead, to use it against them—and he never quite grasped the reason why people would do that to each other.

“I always wanted to create a piece that was powerful and uplifting at the same time. I didn’t know how to do that until one day, I was reading about Simon Wiesenthal.”

Wiesenthal (1908-2005) was a Holocaust survivor who spent about four years in various concentration camps. After he was freed, he dedicated his life to tracking down Nazi war criminals.

“The point is just to take a sliver out of time and life,” Dugan said. “… Simon was a good subject to pick, because he was an aspiring amateur comedian before World War II, so it’s easy to add levity to the story. There are many friends of his who have relayed his anecdotes and jokes to me. The experience is meant to be an uplifting and poignant night out.”

Dugan said Holocaust survivors who have seen the show have expressed gratitude.

“The most fulfilling of surprises have been when survivors from the Holocaust come to the show and bring their families. Oftentimes, they will come up to tell me that I could tell their story better than they could—and now they feel that their family can truly understand the experience they had,” he said.

I had to ask Dugan what Wiesenthal would think about the resurgence of nationalist movements, both in the United States and abroad.

“I can only make a speculation that he would not be surprised,” Dugan said. “Things have been moving this direction for a while. It works in a cycle. People who (lived through the) experience are gone, and the others forget. Then things go back. He is often quoted of speaking about the human savage, and it is mankind’s job to control and contain this savage within us. The lessons from this play are very topical in our country today. Wiesenthal’s mission was to give voice to those who were silenced, encouraging future generations to fight against hatred and intolerance for all people.

“This is what is fun about the questions and answers after the show. You never know who will show up or what they will say. I once had a student even tell me that the show ‘didn’t suck like I thought it would.’”

While Dugan has a number of TV and film credits on his résumé, his most notable successes have come via the one-man historical shows he’s written.

“I wrote a play called Shades of Gray about Robert E. Lee,” he said. “It’s gotten too controversial to do now, because who Robert E. Lee was is not who the general public thinks he was.” Dugan also wrote and directed a show about Frederick Douglass, In the Shadow of Slavery; The Ghosts of Mary Lincoln; and Jackie Unveiled, about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

I asked him whether it’s harder to write about real people than fictional characters.

“You can’t make things up,” he said. “You have to know who you’re writing about and really learn who they were.”

Wiesenthal (Nazi Hunter) will be performed at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday, March 9, at the Riverside Theatre on the UC Riverside-Palm Desert Campus, 75080 Frank Sinatra Drive, in Palm Desert; a question-and-answer session follows each show. Tickets are $55; as of our press deadline, tickets remained for the 2 p.m. show, while the 7:30 p.m. show had sold out. For tickets or information, call 866-811-4111, or visit wiesenthaltheshow.com.

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