“Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski,” now running at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Michael R. Klein Theatre, is a searing and intimate study of a hero who thought he was a failure, portrayed with strength and vulnerability by Academy Award-nominated actor David Strathairn.
Strathairn, known for film roles such as “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “Nomadland,” has made a career of playing understated and noble figures, both real and fictional. He is the ideal choice to originate the role of Jan Karski in this one-man show conceived of and written by director Derek Goldman and Clark Young.
…a superb achievement of both witnessing and stage drama…a powerful production that demands attention.
Karski, a Polish Roman Catholic born Jan Kozielewski in Łódź just months before the start of the First World War, was raised by his parents to be respectful and protective of their Jewish neighbors who often faced bullying from the young Jan’s friends. He carried this sense of cross-cultural solidarity into his early career as a diplomat. Made an officer in the days before the German invasion, he was captured by Soviet forces and held prisoner in present-day Ukraine, barely escaping the Katyn massacre of ranking Polish personnel.
Three months after the start of the war, Kozielewski joined the Polish Underground, and adopted Karski as his nom de guerre (later making it his legal name). He was soon charged with serving as a human camera, getting firsthand knowledge of German atrocities against Jews and other Poles inside occupied Poland. With nothing more than his own integrity and honesty as evidence, Karski set off to convince Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and other Allied leaders that a systematic effort to exterminate Polish Jewry was underway, putting the lie to the later claims that Allied leaders did not know of the looming Holocaust until the end of the war.
In one particularly jarring scene, Karski meets with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, a Jew who was close to Roosevelt. Frankfurter listens in silence as Karski methodically recounts what he has seen, finally telling the Polish witness that he does not believe him. Frankfurter clarifies that he does not think Karski is lying; rather, Frankfurter cannot bring himself to believe that anyone could treat fellow humans in such a way. Left unspoken is the subtext: If Frankfurter did believe Karski, Frankfurter would feel responsibility to act. Denying reality was the less demanding and less painful choice.
Strathairn fully embodies the rage and frustration inside this essentially humble man as he struggled to convince those who could do something about the genocide to act. For the rest of his life, Karski considered his mission a failure even as leaders of the nations who ignored him proclaimed him a hero.
While Strathairn’s performance is captivating enough to command attention on its own merits, he is aided considerably by Zach Blane’s lighting design and the sound design by Roc Lee. Blane uses blinding lights from behind to stun the audience, and effectively evokes a tense train journey with lighting from the wings. Lee’s sound design paints mental backdrops to the action on the mostly bare stage, with original music underscoring the haunting mood.
“Remember This” is a superb achievement of both witnessing and stage drama, offering proof that theatre can be a medium to both inform and indict. It is a powerful production that demands attention.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 35 minutes with no intermission. Talkbacks with the creative team are taking place after each showing.
“Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski” runs through October 17, 2021 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Michael R. Klein Theatre, 450 Seventh Street NW in Washington. Click here for tickets and information. NOTE: All patrons must wear masks and show proof of vaccination in order to attend a performance.