Richardson — Tom Dugan brings his one-man show Wiesenthal about the famed Nazi hunter to the Eisenmann Center this weekend. Dugan is a seasoned actor who began to focus his work on writing one-man plays about a variety of different characters—he currently has five shows in production about historical figures such as Frederick Douglass and Robert E. Lee. Wiesenthal is based on real-life Nazi hunter and Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal. Wiesenthal, an Austrian Jew, worked out of his office at the Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna and brought more than 1000 Nazi war criminals to justice.
The show is a solo performance, but Dugan has designed it like a play.
“What I don’t want is to be on stage saying, ‘And then I did, and then I did…’ There has to be a sense of urgency; we are dropped in the middle of a situation. The character has 90 minutes to overcome the obstacle in front of him.”
Wiesenthal is set on the day of Wiesenthal’s retirement in 2003. He is speaking to a group of students, something the real Wiesenthal did quite frequently. An educator, he loved to tell his stories to the groups that would come. Dugan says Wiesenthal worked with a staff that ranged from 2-20, but his favorite thing was to have students that visited the center talk to him.
“He had a quick sense of humor, and this was the key to his success as an educator. He was always so aware of his audience.”
Dugan’s recreation of the man is thoughtful. He started researching Wiesenthal in 2007 and began writing the play in 2008. By 2009 it premiered to great success. He worked with a dialect coach to recreate his voice, and while he never had the opportunity to meet Wiesenthal, he has studied many documents and biographies, as well as documentaries to do justice to the famed man. Dugan is much younger and quite a bit thinner than Wiesental as well, so a fat suit and meticulous makeup help to transform Dugan to Wiesenthal.
Wiesenthal’s final day as Nazi Hunter is a promise to deliver his “greatest hits.” He recounts the capture of Adolf Eichmann, the notorious architect of the “Final Solution.” Wiesenthal saw him before he was hanged, and was shocked to find that he looked less like a villainous mastermind than “a little bookkeeper.” Not all of the captures ended in triumph. One of the play’s more moving sections concerns the trial of Franz Murer, the “Butcher of Vilna” who was somehow acquitted despite damning eyewitness testimony from the father of one of his victims.
Dugan spoke with TheaterJones about his formula for creating the historical characters he’s become well known for portraying, as well as his current work in progress: a one-woman show about Jackie Kennedy. Dallas might just be the perfect spot for that premiere.
TheaterJones: How did you develop an interest in creating this show?
Tom Dugan: My father was a World War II veteran. He received a Bronze Battle Star and a Purple Heart. He also helped liberate the Langenstein-Zwieberge concentration camp. He had a piece of shrapnel stuck in his hip. I asked him if he hated the Germans and he said no. He said he didn’t judge people by the group they belonged to. He judged them by the way they behaved. I didn’t really understand that until I started learning about Wiesenthal.
What brought that to light for you?
His tolerance. I’m Catholic and I’ve learned so much about tolerance from the Jewish people. I am married to a Jewish woman and my sons are Jewish. I participate in all the Jewish celebrations and our temple has welcomed me with open arms.
Are either of you Orthodox in your religions?
Not really, and that helps. Before we were married we discussed how this would work. We realized that what we cared about was larger than either of our faiths. I discovered that my faith wasn’t as important to me as the ethics of it.
How does the blended faith work in practice with your kids?
Well, we’ve taught them that Jesus was Jewish and that Catholicism is kind of the sequel. There are many similarities in the traditions, after all. The last supper was a Seder.
Do you have a formula for developing your solo shows?
The subjects kind of pick me, but I am also very pragmatic. I ask everyone and their mother if they would be interested in a show about a certain person. I’ve had some shows that people told me, ‘Definitely not.’ This was one like a 90% yes.
And this takes place on the day of his retirement?
Yes. And there is the urgency for him. There is something he hasn’t been saying to each of the groups he’s been speaking to and he has to make sure he checks everything off his list for the last time. He had an enormous obligation to give voice to those who could not speak.
And there’s also another element to it, I understand?
There is a mystery unfolding as the play progresses. He’s in the middle on tracking down one of the most notorious Nazis, and we learn about this through a series of phone calls through the show.
Are there pieces of you in your shows?
Yes. It can’t just be about the character. The audience has to feel that I’m also telling their story. For the show I’m developing now about Jackie Kennedy there are many ideas about intimacy and the danger of intimacy. That was something she spoke about a lot. And my theatrical mind goes there, of course, because those are fears that I have as well. It’s very satisfying for me.
Dallas would be a great spot for a Jackie show.
I wondered if there would be an interest for it here.
We love women in Dallas. I think it would be perfect. Do you play Jackie?
No! But I certainly have the legs for it. My director Jenny Sullivan is amazing and I have no doubt she will cast someone perfect for it.
Does it take place during the assassination?
Jackie never wrote an autobiography, but she recorded many audio tapes. This play will be split into two “tapes.” One on the night in 1968 when Robert Kennedy is shot, and the other in 1994 when she’s diagnosed with Lymphoma. She was such a positive, complex human character. When I asked around if people would see this play the response was 100 percent yes.