Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Few people are familiar with the name Jan Karski (1914-2000), but many more should be, and that's what actor David Strathairn and playwrights Clark Young and Derek Goldman are doing with Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski, a shatteringly immersive Shakespeare Theatre Company production in the Michael R. Klein Theatre at the Lansburgh in Washington.
During his spellbinding 100-minute performance, Strathairn bookends the story of Karskia courier for the Polish Underground during World War II who "told of the annihilation of the Jewish people while there was still time to stop it" but whose comments went unheededwith calls for individuals to look beyond indifference and inconvenience and speak up when they see injustice. Goldman, also the director, and Young created the work at Georgetown University, where Karski earned his Ph.D. and spent 40 years on the School of Foreign Service faculty.
Karski was a Catholic who, as a child, had many Jewish friends. Strathairn describes his service in the Polish army, which was defeated by the Nazis in 1939; his time as an inmate in a Soviet labor camp; and, after his escape, his service in the Underground. "I report what I see," he says as he sneaks into the Warsaw Ghetto and a death camp, stressing the moral role of each person: "Governments have no souls. Individuals have souls ... We have a future because we have the truth."
Karski made his way first to London, where he told what he saw to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, and then to the United States, where he met with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and President Franklin Delano Rooseveltnone of whom would accept the truth of his eyewitness report.
After the war, Karski did not talk about his history until director Claude Lanzmann asked him to participate in his epic nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust, Shoah, in 1985. Subsequently he was named to the "Righteous Among the Nations" by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, and honored posthumously with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.
The story is gripping in and of itself, and Strathairn's performance demands to be seen (a film adaptation is scheduled for release in 2022). The physical production is largely understated but effective: Misha Kachman's scenic design consists of a simple table and chairs and Ivania Stack's costume design, a muted suit and a colorful sweater, while Zach Blane's lighting design and Roc Lee's sound design create the sense of both internal and external disorientation.
Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski runs through October 17, 2021, at the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Michael R. Klein Theatre at the Lansburgh, 450 Seventh St. NW, Washington DC. For tickets and information, please call 202-547-1122 or 877-487-8849 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.
By Clark Young and Derek Goldman