After a twenty-month-long intermission, Washington DC theater has finally returned, bringing a partnership with a new venue along with it. Not only was “Remember This: The Lessons of Jan Karski” at the Michael R. Klein Theatre my first review since February of 2020, it was also my first time reviewing a production for the Shakespeare Theatre Company. The venue itself has a very local, intimate feel, which was a surprising but refreshing change from other venues in the city.
Going into this one-man show about World War II, I was skeptical. Intrigued, but skeptical. With a simple set composed only of an old wooden table and some rickety looking chairs, I expected more of a lecture-style, breaking of the fourth wall kind of thing. What I did not expect was the incredibly moving, humanizing, artistic piece that played out in front of me.
Based on a true story and developed at Georgetown University in Washington DC, “Remember This: The Lessons of Jan Karski” tells the tale of war hero and Holocaust witness (and later Georgetown professor) Jan Karski. As he escapes war-torn Poland and risks his life to warn world leaders about the Nazis, he is repeatedly disbelieved and turned away. Led by Academy Award nominee David Strathairn as Jan Karski, the production takes audiences through a narrative of Karski’s life and torment he and others were forced to endure at the hands of Nazi Germany.
Strathairn tells Karski’s story with a sort of jittery, but well-controlled, energy. He never stops moving, which helps emulate the sense of rising panic and chaos he speaks of. Karski goes from successful diplomat to prisoner in a Nazi work camp to messenger for the secret Polish Underground, eventually landing an audience with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself. Strathairn takes audiences to the impoverished ghettos, describing everything he sees, hears, and smells in such a way that his audiences have no choice but to experience it with him. “Governments have no souls,” he says. “Individuals have souls.” He tries to convince the Allied Powers of the atrocities he sees, but time and time again, he is disbelieved, scorned, or dismissed.
In such an intense, yet really fairly simple, production, the offstage work in this show is perhaps even more important than it is in other circumstances. In a one-man show with no real scenery or set pieces, the work of the scenic, lighting, and sound/composition designers (Misha Kachman, Zach Blane, and Roc Lee respectively) must be incredibly intentional. Watching the show, you know that Strathairn is standing on a table. I know that he’s standing on a table. But thanks to these three incredibly talented individuals, a theater full of people is somehow willing and able to believe Strathairn is not on a table at all, but is instead standing on top of a moving train, ready to jump to freedom and escape through the Polish countryside.
Of course, I would be remiss if I did not mention the brilliant costume choices created by designer Ivania Stack. While changing a piece here or adding an accessory there to portray different characters is nothing new in theater, Strathairn’s subtle removal and addition of costume pieces become a visual manifestation of Karski’s story and his rise from intelligent, respected diplomat to a beaten and defeated prisoner of the Nazi soldiers.
Immediately following the production is an intimate conversation with Strathairn, director and co-writer Derek Goldman, and co-writer Clark Young as they discuss the process of creating the show and answer audience questions. Not to say the show would have been incomplete without this conversation, but it certainly adds a little extra something to hear inside tidbits from the writers themselves. Learning that the play is comprised primarily of direct quotes from interviews Karski gave over the years adds another level of authenticity and humanization to his story.
In a time when the world is full of turmoil on all sides, Karski’s message holds more weight than ever. Strathairn asks audiences to not look at the world in terms of good versus evil, but instead asks them to think about the duty of the individual.
This is “a piece about what it is like to bear witness,” Goldman says. “Something that has been bringing people to the theater for thousands of years.”
“Remember This: The Lessons of Jan Karski” is a show you certainly won’t forget any time soon. The production runs at the Michael R. Klein Theatre through October 17, 2021, and tickets can be purchased here.
Feature Photo Credit: Teresa Castracane Photography