Stage and screen star David Strathairn gives a tour de force performance in Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski, bringing to life the Polish hero and patriot. Developed at Georgetown University’s Laboratory of Global Performance and Politics (aka The Lab) in 2014, it has previously been seen in Warsaw, Chicago and Washington, DC., and filmed for educational use. In this powerful, poignant and inspirational solo performance, Strathairn plays a man who thought his work in World War II was insignificant but whose accomplishment is a motivation for us all.
In the script by co-authors Clark Young and Derek Goldman (Goldman also directed unobtrusively), Strathairn begins as himself and slowly becomes Karski so completely that you feel that you have met him. He also plays many other people that Karski met along the way as messenger for the Polish Underground including important world leaders such as British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and Polish Jewish leader Szmul Zygielbojm based in London, using different voices for each. The minimal scenic production by Misha Kachman uses only a table and two chairs which allows for quick transitions. This is also accomplished by the evocative and atmospheric lighting by Zach Blane.
Arriving on stage without socks, jacket or tie, Strathairn dresses in Karski’s university attire and becomes the professor before our eyes. First he tells us the facts of Karski’s life. Born Jan Kozielewski in 1914, he became a Polish diplomat, and a messenger for the Polish Underground, bringing proof of Nazi atrocities against the Polish Jews to the allied leaders although he himself was Catholic. Traveling from capital to capital to report what he had seen as a witness, he found that he was either not believed or leaders wanted to close their eyes to the horrors of the Polish Holocaust which he knew first hand. Eventually after reaching Washington, D.C., he had to remain there as he was too well known to continue his undercover work. Ultimately, he became a professor at Georgetown University from 1952 until his retirement in 1992.
As Karski he tells us that for 35 years he never spoke of his work during World War II until approached by filmmaker Claude Lanzman in 1978 to be interviewed for his documentary Shoah about the Holocaust. When Lanzman edited most of his remarks out of the finished film, Karski decided to go on record with his own story. Growing up Catholic in Lodz, he eventually left for the University of Poland. After graduation he learned French in Geneva and English in London which led to a career in a low level job in the Polish embassy. Drafted into the Polish Army, he is eventually captured by the Russians but gets himself transferred to a (brutal) German prisoner of war camp so that he can return to Poland.
He escapes and returns to Warsaw where he is recruited by the Polish Underground because of his knowledge of languages and his ability to travel around Europe becoming “a tape recorder. A camera. A messenger…” He was sent as observer to Lotz now a German city renamed Litzmannstadt, Lublin, the Jewish death camp Belzec, and the mountains of Slovakia where he is captured by the Nazis. He is tortured so thoroughly for his information that when he is helped to escape by Polish doctors and nurses it takes seven months for him to recover.
Before being sent to London to brief Polish Jewish Underground leader Zygielbojm, he is smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto where he is horrified by what he sees and where his guides continue to tell him to “Remember this.” They also get him into the Nazi death camp called Powodzenia as a Ukrainian officer where he is so sickened by the treatment of a transport of 6,000 Jews who have been rounded up for deportation that he doesn’t trust himself to remain an observer. Worse is yet to come when he meets with British and American diplomats in London and Washington who do not want to hear his story.
Aside from his ability to create multiple characters with his voice and body language, Strathairn’s physicality is remarkable in aging from a young man to a senior citizen before our eyes as well as using the table for enacting various events such as jumping off of a train or Karski’s torture by the Nazis. (The masterly movement director is Emma Jaster.) In the brief 90 minutes of playing time, Strathairn is able to establish a quietly heroic man’s entire life and career with modesty, sincerity and simplicity. It is not only a remarkable performance, it is also an impressive reconstruction of another man’s character and deeds.
Strathairn begins the evening by asking the question in the face of the atrocities happening in the world, “Do we have a duty, a responsibility, as individuals.. to do something, anything?” and he reminds us that “human beings have infinite capacity to ignore things that are inconvenient.” He ends the evening with the same question. Depicting the life of Polish hero Jan Karski who felt that his life was a failure because he was not able to enact any change, Strathairn has answered his original question in the affirmative by Karski’s example of being a witness to history. It is not every actor who can hold an audience rapt for 90 minutes in the palm of his hand with a shocking but heroic story that we have not heard before, but David Strathairn who is a consummate actor demonstrates that unique ability in Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski.
Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski (extended through October 16, 2022)
Theatre for a New Audience
Samuel H. Scripps Mainstage at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, in Brooklyn
For tickets, visit http://www.tfana.com
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission