Brian Kojac's performance as the title character in Robert Jensen's new play, Wallenberg, is extraordinary. It's extraordinary not only because Kojac had a mere 10 days to learn a lengthy script and create a demanding character—Raoul Wallenberg, the heroic Swedish diplomat who outfoxed the Third Reich by bribing, lying, threatening, and doing anything else he could to save Hungarian Jews from certain extermination—but also because none of this is evident in his performance.
Kojac was a near-to-last-minute replacement for Addison Glines, a talented 19-year-old Fullerton College student who dropped out when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. (Glines, an audience member at Sunday's performance, appeared in good spirits and reported his ongoing chemotherapy treatment is going well.) While the personal drama surrounding Wallenberg can't be overlooked, once the lights go out, it becomes irrelevant. In this debut production, which Jensen also directed, Wallenberg works more as an homage to the man than riveting drama —although it certainly keeps your attention.
Wallenberg is the story of a man who endured one of the most ironic, poignant fates imaginable. Although he continually risked his life in order to save tens of thousands of Jews near the end of World War II, Wallenberg disappeared in 1945. He was arrested by the Soviets, and no concerted effort was ever made by his native Sweden—or the Americans who bankrolled his relief effort—to liberate him. A recent Russian-Swedish commission has concluded that Stalin's lieutenants had him arrested, brought to Moscow and, in 1947, executed.
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Anyone not familiar with Wallenberg—and even those who are—can't help but leave this production admiring the man and feeling a bit better about being a member of his species. In a time of nearly unfathomable evil, a good man stood up and did something remarkable.
While the play succeeds as living memorial, its status as dramatic event is more problematic. The main obstacle at the moment is the grand scale of Jensen's canvas. It's just too big—everything from Wallenberg's demanding family background (with its failure-is-not-acceptable ethos) and Nazi butcher Adolf Eichmann's low self-esteem to the chaotic politics of Nazi-occupied Hungary and Wallenberg's mysterious fate are covered in 150 minutes. Yes, most of it is germane and interesting. But the events, names and titles are introduced so rapidly that it's difficult to follow them, and they occasionally obscure the character at the center of the storm.
The play works best at its most intimate, human moments such as when we see the psychological toll his mission exacts on Wallenberg or watch the wheels click in his brain as he tries to outwit his nemesis, Eichmann. Those moments transform the crusading St. Wallenberg into a human with natural doubts and fears who had nothing but his own wiles as tools. Then we come closest to realizing what seems to be Jensen's key point: heroes are not born or made, but chosen—by themselves.
WALLENBERG AT FULLERTON COLLEGE'S BRONWYN DODSON THEATRE, 321 E. CHAPMAN AVE., FULLERTON, (714) 992-7294. THURS.-SAT., 8 P.M.; SUN., 2 P.M. THROUGH DEC. 10. $8.50-$10.50.