Encore Michigan

Nazi hunter’s moving history lesson conveyed via Berman Center’s “Wiesenthal”

Review September 24, 2016 Jenn McKee

WEST BLOOMFIELD, Mich. – A pivotal moment in the 1993 film “Schindler’s List” happens near its end, when Oskar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson), who saved 1,200 Jews during the holocaust, collapses with regret and says, “I could have done more.”

A similar (though more emotionally muted) scene happens in the final minutes of Wiesenthal, now being staged at the Berman Center for the Performing Arts. Simon Wiesenthal, a holocaust survivor who famously hunted down and identified 1,100 Nazi criminals, sifts through the pile of medals and commendations and awards that he’s received, noting that because 1,100 only equated to about five percent of the Nazis that should face punishment, he considers himself only a five percent hero.

Wiesenthal – written and starring Tom Dugan, who performed the show Off-Broadway before taking it on tour – is a 90 minute, intermission-less one-man show that allows Simon to tell his own story. With the audience standing in as the last tourist group to visit Wiesenthal’s base of operations, Vienna’s Jewish Documentation Center, before the famous Nazi hunter retires at day’s end (and the space is converted into a museum) in 2003, he offers clear-eyed, unflinching accounts of his mother being captured; his wife attempting an escape to Warsaw, and their unlikely reunion; Simon bouncing around between concentration camps; the cost of keeping his family in Austria after the war; and hunting down Nazis both famous and unknown. We even get to see the latter in action, as he makes and receives phone calls about a Nazi hiding in Syria.

Yes, even on Wiesenthal’s final day of work, he’s trying to snag one more criminal. But that’s the level of zeal you’d expect from a man who spent his entire life – the life he almost didn’t get to live – tracking down those who terrorized him and killed the people he loved.

Dugan plays the then-95 year old Wiesenthal with meticulous care and attention, using a slightly stooped, shuffling gait that’s not too exaggerated, and subtly reaching for various pieces of office furniture for extra support as he organically orbits his workspace. Similarly, Dugan employs an Austrian accent – with Jewish inflection, of course – while painting Wiesenthal as a no-nonsense, deceptively humble terrier whose primary weapons are “persistence, publicity and paperwork.”

Costume designer Alex Jaeger dresses Dugan in a worn, wrinkled suit that Wiesenthal might have fallen asleep in the night before; the voices of protesters (who argue that Anne Frank’s diary is a hoax), among other effects, caused patrons to look to the back of the theater, thanks to Shane Rettig’s affecting sound design; and Joel E. Silver’s lighting design helps underscore Dugan’s occasional transitions into other characters, and it also helps the show shift gears from the present to remembered scenes from the past.

At one point, Wiesenthal says, “This office is my brain,” as well as “Important work in this life is done at messy desks.” Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt takes these environmental cues to heart, creating an old fashioned, lived-in office anchored by a huge tactical map, along with shelves of books, file boxes and cabinets, a water cooler, no-frills furniture, and a red phone at the center of Simon’s desk. Director Jenny Sullivan uses nearly every inch of the set, so that Wiesenthal can perform natural tasks and blocking – getting water to take his medicine, looking up a file, pointing at the map, etc. – in order to give this one-man show a sense of physical vitality.

Yet for all this motion and care, Wiesenthal still feels intermittently static. In part, this is because some of the stories Simon tells are more personal, more gripping, than others; and some are summarized, while others are re-enacted, to varying effect. Some of the most gripping accounts include Simon seeing Adolf Eichmann, a monster in bookkeeper’s clothing, enter a courtroom; Simon’s tearful, terrifying separation from his wife; and an 11-year-old boy’s heart-wrenching note, hidden in a book, that gets to the heart of mortality and loss.

Dugan’s savvy set-up for the show allows him to interact with the audience on occasion: at a performance for students, he admonished a couple of chatty students in the front row, staying in character, and offered other grapes from a baggie later on. Overall, though, the connection between Wiesenthal and the audience seemed polite more than intimate; but perhaps that’s a consequence of a kind-but-guarded man who, near the show’s start, confesses, “I love people, but I don’t trust them.”

Click here for show days, times and details.