Father’s tales of WWII inspire writing of Holocaust play ‘Wiesenthal’

What’s a nice Irish Catholic like Tom Dugan doing writing and starring in “Wiesenthal,” a one-man drama about Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal?

Doing good — and honoring his father.

“Wiesenthal” checks into The Smith Center’s Troesh Studio Theater this weekend for a two-performance run presented by Jewish Repertory Theatre of Nevada.

Dugan, a veteran actor whose TV credits include such hit series as “Friends” and “Bones,” has been performing “Wiesenthal” since 2009, winning a 2011 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for best solo performance.

As one of those critics wrote of Dugan’s “arresting turn” as Wiesenthal, the production “taught me things about a historical figure and event I thought I was already completely familiar with, and touched me in a way I hadn’t thought possible.”

Dugan reports that the play’s Jewish audiences seem both “surprised and delighted” to find a non-Jew playing a major role as author and star of a Holocaust-themed play.

But his presence “brings home the theme of the play,” Dugan says. And that theme?

“The value of tolerance,” he says.

It’s a lesson Dugan first learned as a boy, hearing tales of his medal-winning father’s World War II experiences — including the 1945 liberation of the Langenstein concentration camp.

His father’s accounts “seared” and made “quite an impression on me,” Dugan recalls. “I very clearly remember my father’s descriptions.”

Especially the one regarding “his understanding of what people are capable of,” and how “you have to watch out for the animalistic part of your nature,” Dugan says, remembering how he then asked, “ ‘But not us, Dad, right?’ ”

Dugan remembers how his father looked at him and nodded his head, signaling that even they had the capacity to become “the human savage.”

Later on, “the idea of tolerance extended into my own life” when Dugan, raised an Irish Catholic, married a Jewish woman and fathered “two beautiful boys” — one of whom will be celebrating his bar mitzvah soon. But “I have maintained my Catholic identity in my own home,” he adds, “to illustrate the necessity for tolerance and open-mindedness. I know it’s resonated.”

During his college years in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Dugan had the chance to hear Wiesenthal speak, but “I went to a football game instead — little did I know,” he laughs.

“Wiesenthal” is Dugan’s fourth solo show as writer, director and/or performer.

After his first, the Hollywood-themed “Oscar to Oscar,” he wrote and starred in “Robert E. Lee: Shades of Gray,” which he continues to perform. Dugan also wrote and directed “Frederick Douglass: In the Shadow of Slavery,” while his most recent drama focuses on “The Ghosts of Mary Lincoln.”

Directed by Jenny Sullivan, “Wiesenthal” introduces its title character at age 94, on the last day of Wiesenthal working at his documentation center in Austria, Dugan explains.

There, he welcomes a final group of students to his headquarters.

“That’s who the audience becomes,” he notes, making audience members “very much a part of the play” as Wiesenthal recalls his past — and tracks “one final Nazi criminal” during the course of the drama.

Before writing “Wiesenthal,” Dugan began his research at the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, where he read transcripts of unpublished interviews with his subject — and talked with Holocaust survivors about what they had endured.

Dugan says critics usually like what he does, but he had no idea what response this play would get from audiences, including Holocaust survivors and children of survivors.

“It’s so off the chart,” he says.

He says he can’t count how many survivors have approached him after a performance and said, ‘Can I hug you?’ ”

They also tell him, “Don’t ever stop doing this play,” he adds.

But the reaction of one particular audience member underlined, for Dugan, the importance of performing “Wiesenthal” — which heads to New York next year for an off-Broadway run.

Following every performance, Dugan conducts postshow “talkbacks” that “bring the audience even more into the process,” helping them “feel the ownership of the night, and the story.”

During one Southern California talkback, a young woman stood and asked, “ ‘Is this true?’ ” After Dugan assured her of the accuracy of “Wiesenthal,” she stated, “ ‘In my house, I was told the Holocaust was greatly exaggerated.’ ”

The reason: the young woman’s grandfather was Adolf Eichmann, a key figure in the Nazis’ “Final Solution” to exterminate Europe’s Jews. (Wiesenthal helped Israeli agents track down Eichmann in Buenos Aires; Eichmann was brought to Israel, where he was tried, convicted and executed for war crimes and crimes against humanity.)

“I feel I made my money” that night, Dugan says of the postshow encounter — especially when the young woman told him, “ ‘Everything I know about my grandfather, you just taught me.’ ”

Along with the lessons “Wiesenthal” has to teach, however, “all of my plays are written and performed to be entertaining,” Dugan maintains, noting “they never would have succeeded” otherwise.

Fortunately for him, Wiesenthal had a “magnetic” personality and “a charming sense of humor,” he points out. “In a way, he’s so ingratiating, so engrossing, that you walk out of the play feeling great.”

Quite an achievement for a play that focuses on some of humanity’s darkest deeds.

“You’re going to laugh so much more than you think you are,” Dugan promises, citing his favorite review of “Wiesenthal.”

It was delivered during a postshow talkback by a 14- or 15-year-old boy who offered this one-sentence assessment, as Dugan remembers: “ ‘Wow — I thought this was going to suck.’ ”

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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