“Human beings have infinite capacity to ignore things that are not convenient.”
Actor David Strathairn (“Nomadland;” “Good Night, and Good Luck”) states to the crowd in the opening scene of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s current show at Michael R. Klein Theatre. On a stage completely barren, with only a desk, two chairs and a single man, “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski,” can’t hide behind props or set design — and it doesn’t need to. From the story content, writing and Academy Award-nominated Strathairn’s riveting performance, the show is a masterpiece.
Through October 17, “Remember This” takes you through the harrowing life of World War II Polish soldier and resistance fighter, Jan Karski, who served as a courier for the exiled Polish government and was one of the first to inform multiple governments of the Nazi concentration camps’ horrors.
Following the opening scene, a short clip from Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary “Shoah” is projected on stage, and shows the real Jan Karski struggling to speak on the memories of his time as a messenger for the Polish underground. The pain in his voice is visceral as the trauma decades later clearly still haunts him.
Strathairn then proceeds to put on a sweater vest and jacket on stage. With the costume — and accent — change, he becomes Jan Karski and recalls the memories of his service during WWII from his classroom at Georgetown University, where Karski taught for four decades.
Through the course of the play, the story grippingly details how a man with a bright, promising future became a war prisoner and then an underground messenger relentlessly trying to inform the world of what he was witnessing in Poland at the hands of Nazis.
Karski nearly escapes death on numerous occasions, and recounts the many people who were not as lucky. With the stage completely black except for the spotlight on Karski, it is easy to get entranced by the performance and be transported. The air often feels sucked from the room as each act unfolds, the suspense never dissipating.
Written by Georgetown University scholars Clark Young and Derek Goldman, and directed by Goldman, the dark, historic subject matter is balanced with humor throughout the play. Jokes are often witty side remarks, which bring Karski’s character to life and provide a deeper understanding of his humility and intelligence.
The show is also about how humanity’s worst crimes are often overlooked, prompting the question: What is one’s personal responsibility in addressing society’s worst atrocities?
Despite Karski’s efforts — including sneaking into a concentration camp so he could provide first account detail on the atrocities against Jewish people — no one of authority believed him. Karski visits members close to Winston Churchill in London and President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself at the White House in 1943. He is faced with denial or indifference, and the audience is left with the unsettling reality of people’s unwillingness to help others in crisis until it affected them.
The show ends similarly to how it began: by looking at the play’s message on a larger scale and with open-ended questions. The deeply moving performance left me in awe. It took a moment to gather myself before joining the rest of the audience in a long-standing ovation.
Walking out on the D.C. streets — the same location where the play leaves off — I found myself continuing to wonder and reviewing the scenes of the play now seared into my memory. The play is a tremendous success in engaging the audience and accomplishing its overarching goal: to “Remember This.” To remember the Holocaust; to remember the people we chose to ignore; to remember so it doesn’t happen again.
“Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski” runs now through October 17, 2021 at Michael R. Klein Theatre with various showtimes. Tickets range $49-$112 and can be purchased at the box office or at shakespearetheatre.org.
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