Rage and Remembrance In True West and Wiesenthal

The Southeastern Premiere of Wiesenthal seemed as good a theatrical fit as any for my “days of repentance,” the ten days between Jewish holidays Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that are meant to be a time of intense religious reflection. Presented at Gablestage’s intimate Biltmore Theatre, the show explored the life of famous Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal.

I’m not a particularly observant Jew, but I do have Jewish heritage on both sides, including a maternal grandmother who was a Holocaust survivor. I lost two great-grandparents and many more extended family members to the events sometimes referred to in Hebrew as the “Shoah,” and its shadow has always loomed large in my psyche.

The framing of the show, as Wiesenthal’s speech to the last American tour group to come through his office, allows the character to address us directly; he even has us speak to his wife over the phone and offers us cookies. Further, this device offers a convenient way to delve into Wiesenthal’s memories and backstory as he recounts them to us, including his experiences of losing most of his family to Hitler’s regime and being imprisoned and nearly starved to death in a concentration camp. Tom Dugan’s script seems to capture the very essence of Simon Wiesenthal himself, and it offers more than enough humor and buoyancy to make the play’s dark subject matter bearable.

David Kwiat’s skilled performance as Wiesenthal adeptly demonstrates the good-humored and grandfatherly aspects of his character as well as the determined rage he can direct towards the deserving. As I’m sure many in the audience did, I got an eerie feeling regarding our current head of state when Wiesenthal spoke about Hitler’s outsize charisma and excellent public speaking abilities, having written my own opinion piece comparing the two figures for Musee Magazine in early 2018.

One of the play’s most memorable moments was when Wiesenthal reads us a note that a young boy named Albert left in a Jewish prayer book shortly before being sent to a concentration camp, urging whoever found it to ensure that he was remembered. Also striking was Wiesenthal’s description of Adolf Eichmann, whom Wiesenthal had worked for years to help capture. Wiesenthal was expecting a hard-driving monster, but the infamous Nazi mastermind came off more like a meek bookkeeper. Like so many others who committed unthinkable acts during the Holocaust, Eichmann pathetically claimed to have only been following Hitler’s orders.

I may be as of yet “not guilty” of war crimes, but I, like Eichmann, am certainly complicit in complacency. I am guilty of not doing enough to counter our nation’s ungodly political atmosphere, of not speaking out more vocally about the causes I care about, and even of colluding with certain forces that I believe may be actively doing harm.

I could certainly stand to take a page out of Wiesenthal’s book; instead of being paralyzed or driven to bitterness by his past, Wiesenthal channels the traumatic events of his early adulthood into a powerful drive not for revenge but for justice. His motivation is primarily to teach future murderers that they are not going to get away with it, thus preventing tragedies like the one that killed his family and avenging the spirits of Albert and all those like him.

If we can all learn to be as wise as Wiesenthal, we will never be short of worthy opponents. Towards the end of the play, Wiesenthal’s show-long address to the audience becomes a direct call to action as he urges us to take up his mantle in remembering those lost to the Holocaust and doing our damnedest to prevent such a thing from ever happening again, as he implores us to combat the “human savage in all of us that will never go away.”

That savagery was on full display in True West by Sam Shepard, playing at the nearby-ish Main Street Theatre and produced by the Main Street Players. This two-hour firecracker of a play blazed by in a flash, only blighted by some strangely placed and cliché-sounding music cues and a few oddly staged set changes.

The play begins when Austin’s retreat to his mother’s apartment for some quiet writing time is abruptly crashed by his delinquent brother Lee. Actor Christopher Milan’s outsize, chaotic energy in the part brought an immediate tension to the proceedings; you knew instantly that Lee’s presence was going to throw a wrench into Austin’s seemingly civilized existence, even before we had any inkling of why or how.

As befits Sam Shepard’s absurdist style, Lee ends up winning a game of golf against an executive who had promised to produce Austin’s script. Lee then convinces the executive to produce Lee’s own script instead. The problem with this scheme is that Lee has no writing training, so he enlists Austin’s help in getting his far-fetched Western ideas into proper screenplay format.

The chaos that then ensued probably appeared only slightly farfetched to those who have had the misfortune of encountering a writer who is deeply under the thrall of a deadline. The two characters began drinking continuously and quickly let their mother’s apartment descend into utter chaos, complete with dead plants and a floor papered with discarded pages.

Tyler Grimes is adept at playing the caring but exasperated brother and “straight man” to Lee’s wild card during the play’s first act. However, as the show goes on, Lee’s animalistic nature ends up drawing out Austin’s (and Grimes’) own “inner savagery.” This transformation results, among other things, in Austin hilariously accepting Lee’s dare to steal a couple of toasters and then trying to placate his brother with some good old-fashioned fresh toast.

However, Austin’s anger becomes less and less benign as he and Lee’s rivalry grows ever more contentious. Lee, meanwhile, does eventually manage to show a bit of humanity, if not decorum, in his apparent envy of Austin’s more conventional life and his tender longing for a woman to share the rest of his “night” with (the two have lost all sense of time in their drink-fuelled delirium, and it’s actually almost dawn.)

The brothers’ bickering eventually escalates into a physical fight, and even the entrance of the boys’ mother near the end of the play is not enough to prompt either of them to remember their better natures. Neither is the threat of mortality; despite the fact that Austin goes as far as nearly choking his brother to death, the two desperate creatures can only close out the show by resuming their bloodthirsty brawl.

Sam Shepard reportedly wrote True West as an examination of the trap of contemporary masculinity and the oft-troubling duality of human nature, and viewing it in conjunction with Wiesenthal could well have been a masterclass in how to be a human being, complete with good and bad examples. True courage and true manliness are not to be found in indulging your lowest impulses as Lee does, nor in repressing or denying your pain and your rage as does Austin. If you do, that darkness will always be lurking under the surface, ready to come roaring out given the slightest opportunity. The best of us, like Wiesenthal, can channel our savagery against the true savages out there, and make the world a better place in the process.

Both plays are finishing up their respective runs this October 20th, so there’s no time to waste if you’re interested in catching either of them!

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