When Tom Dugan was 8, he felt a piece of shrapnel lodged in the hip of his father, a decorated veteran of World War II, and commented that his father must “hate the Germans.”
At the time, the young Dugan did not understand his father’s reply.
“He said, ‘No, I don’t judge people by what group they belong to; I judge them by how they behave,’” recounted the actor and creator of the one-man show, “Wiesenthal: Nazi Hunter,” which will run at the August Wilson Cultural Center from March 26 to 28.
It wasn’t until years later, when Dugan was reading the obituary of Simon Wiesenthal — a Holocaust survivor who brought more than 1,100 Nazi war criminals to justice — that he finally grasped the significance of his father’s words.
“My dad received the Bronze Battle Star, and Purple Hearts, and he liberated a camp called Langenstein, and I always wanted to honor his legacy of being a part of the Greatest Generation, but I couldn’t find a way,” said Dugan, speaking by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “Then I was reading Wiesenthal’s obituary and they spoke of his belief in the rejection of collective guilt, and that’s when the light went on in my head, and I went, ‘Oh, maybe this is something I should pursue.’ And it’s turned out to be the right thing to do.”
Dugan spent a year researching the life of Wiesenthal and another year writing his 90-minute play. The show, which Dugan insists is “uplifting,” has been playing to sellout crowds since 2014. It played an extended off-Broadway run, and has been nominated for two off-Broadway awards, the Outer Critics Circle Award and the Drama Desk Award.
Dugan altered his show’s North American tour dates so that he could come to Pittsburgh earlier in its run to help the congregations affected by the Oct. 27 attack at the Tree of Life synagogue building; a portion of the proceeds from the show’s ticket sales will be donated toward the rebuilding of the synagogue.
“When you have a Jewish-themed play about tolerance that has been so well received in the U.S. and across the world, it’s not hard to connect dots,” said Dugan. “In a situation like Tree of Life, people want to come and help. With Wiesenthal, we can give concrete help in these awful circumstances.”
Wiesenthal was born in 1908 in what is now Ukraine, and was shipped to various concentration camps during the war. After liberation, he devoted his life to hunting down those Nazis responsible for the murders of millions of innocent people.
Dugan’s wife is Jewish, as are his two sons, and though he is Irish Catholic, he says he feels comfortable taking on the persona of Wiesenthal.
“He was not prone to oversentimentality,” Dugan explained. “He wanted to get the job done. He understood what needed to be done. He was not interested in self-aggrandizement, and he was a three-dimensional thinker who was trying to get society to do the same.
“When I write a play,” Dugan continued, “I know that if I am going to be performing it, I am probably going to be performing it an awful lot. And I wanted to write something that I believed in. I wanted to write something that I would be proud of, that my children would be proud of, and so I chose this very intelligent, articulate and diligent man who was striving to make the world a better place, not just for Jews, but for everyone.”
One thing that many people don’t know about Wiesenthal is that he was an amateur stand-up comedian before the war, according to Dugan.
“He had a great sense of humor and he understood that talking about sad things over and over again is not going to keep your audience,” Dugan said. “So, I’ve been able to capture his sense of humor in the play, and audiences find themselves laughing as much as they cry. And people leave the theater extremely uplifted. I want the audience to know that this play is not a drag. It’s an entertainment. It’s an uplifting piece.”
Dugan has written six other shows, including plays about Robert E. Lee, Frederick Douglass, Mary Lincoln and Jackie Kennedy. And he just obtained the rights from the Sholem Aleichem family foundation to write about another Jewish man, albeit a fictional one — Tevye. Dugan will soon be working to create a one-man show about the storied milkman and his challenges following expulsion from Anatevka, and trying to make his way on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at