David Strathairn brings World War II hero Jan Karski to harrowing life with a message for now

Jan Karski should be better known and perhaps David Strathairn’s masterful and engaging performance in getting him on stage will help remedy this. At the Theater for New Audiences New York premiere of Clark Young and Derek Goldman’s 90-minute play Remember: The Lesson of Jan KarskiDirected by Goldman at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn (through October 9), we see not only the unfolding of Karski’s story, but the haunting echoes of his experience up to the present day.

The play was created at Georgetown University’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, where Karski was a much – 40 year old after his formative experiences in World War II as a courier for the Polish underground resistance exposing the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto and a Nazi death camp long-loved and respected professor at the School of Foreign Service.

In fact, right before diving into Karski’s character, Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated Strathairn tells us, “We see what’s going on in the world, don’t we? Our world is in danger. Every day it becomes more and more brittle, more toxic, seemingly out of control. We are torn apart by immense chasms of selfishness, mistrust, fear, hatred, indifference and denial. Millions are displaced, driven from their homes, impoverished, justice denied simply because they are, sick, silenced, forgotten. We see that, don’t we? How can we not see that? So what can we do? Is there anything we can do that we are not already doing? Do we as individuals have a duty, a responsibility… to do anything? And if so, how do we know what to do?”

As this reporter writes those words, it’s just another day in the universe that right-wing politicians seem intent on targeting us—groups of migrants sent to Democrat-ruled cities out of sheer political malice; and a delayed Senate debate and vote on marriage equality because the Republican votes are not there in their favor.

Marriage equality has been the law of the country for years, but it has had to go through this process because the Supreme Court, which originally passed the law, has now been Republican-dominated and simply crushed it Roe v. calf. The concern – supported by Justice Clarence Thomas’ declared animus – is that marriage equality is now also uncertain; hence the need for this vote and the depressing confirmation that Republicans will do whatever it takes to prevent it.

All of these events flow through one’s mind with Strathairn’s introduction; his warning that we are way down the ski slope of authoritarianism – and our responsibility to counteract its poison. It should be a foreign land that rings our warnings about, a distant equivalent of Germany in 1932. But it is here now, in the relentless assault on freedom and democracy by former President Trump and his vicious acolytes.

The play is a shame and a warning bell for our times, as well as telling of a dark and horrible time in modern history. Karski’s experience is that of someone who asked what he should do and did it, whatever the personal cost to him. Karski’s bravery, as portrayed by Strathairn, was very tenacious and admirable – an unwavering commitment to behaving decently in the face of grotesque indecency.

The play’s message is heightened by his character, for in World War II Jan Karski saw the suffering and dying and dead in a concentration camp up close, he told the powerful in Britain and America in 1943, and went unheard and unnoticed. We see him at the White House, stunned by the decoration and magnificence, and utterly discouraged when it becomes clear that President Franklin D. Roosevelt has not heard a word from him.

“Forcing himself to watch, he tells himself that he will tell someone and help fight this terrible injustice.”

Strathairn doesn’t just preach a sermon. There is a flash of wit and lightness as he outlines Karski’s Ramrod-like decency and also his feelings of fleeting passion. He too – and Ouch, it looks physical – throwing itself around a relatively bare stage. A table and a few chairs are the only furnishings as we watch Karski quickly grow from a dodgy youth into a dedicated resistance fighter. We see Karski being held in a POW camp from which he escapes.

He is by nature a loner, an observer. In one of the play’s most painful moments, he faces the horrors of the ghetto and death camps head-on, the scale of the heaving mass of people in pain he cannot comprehend right in front of him. But he forces himself to watch, telling himself that he will tell someone and help fight this terrible injustice.

He also wants to do something active, picking up the starved and beaten bodies in front of him. But he doesn’t. That makes the political leadership’s inaction so much worse for him later – he tried to do something, but what he did, he fears, mattered little when he was unheard.

Zach Blane’s incomparable lighting design is like a second character, evocatively taking us from a dead-of-night hideout to a horrific war battle, a torture room, a death camp, and the White House. All the while, Strathairn not only inhabits Karski, but also those Karski interacts with – from a terrified sister to vicious, sadistic Gestapo interrogators.

The play ends with Strathairn watching us again, just like at the beginning. He makes it clear that we all have so many questions to ask ourselves and that only uncompromising, self-evident answers will be offered.

Karski, Strathairn tells us, said that big crimes start with small things. “You don’t like your neighbors. You don’t like them because they are different. Avoid this. Avoid rejecting people. Don’t discriminate. We have to take care of each other. But how do we know what to do? How do we know what to believe? How do we know what to believe in? And what does it even mean – to know? These questions are haunting me now. And I want it to be like that.”

In short, let this be a lesson – a very active, present lesson. David Strathairn brings World War II hero Jan Karski to harrowing life with a message for now

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