By Carole di Tosti . . .
The truth is not easy knowing. Indeed, human beings have infinite capacity to ignore things that are not convenient.
The words are from the New York premiere of Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski, currently at Theater for the New Audience. Acted by David Strathairn in a bravura solo performance as Jan Karski, Polish World War II hero and eyewitness to the Holocaust, the statements about truth, so vital for us today, are the thematic linchpin of Clark Young and Derek Goldman’s play.
The production highlights salient events in Karski’s biography which exemplify his veneration of truth, compassion and human rights. These are the values which led Karski to risk his life in the patriotic service of the Polish government-in-exile, as its courier for the Polish Underground resistance during WWII.
Originally produced by the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University, where Jan Karski once taught, Derek Goldman’s masterful direction shepherds Strathairn through the voices and mien of many individuals, as he portrays Karski on his journey to bring his eye-witness account of the Nazi Jewish genocide to the Allies. With particularity and seamless transformations from one character to the next, Strathairn speaks as numerous individuals: Karski’s mother and grandmother, Nazi and Russian officers, Polish ambassadors, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, Associate Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and President Franklin Roosevelt, to name a few.
Adapted from Karski’s writings and fashioned as a powerful lesson of moment and warning, thanks to Strathairn’s sterling portrayals, the stark play mesmerizes. With minimalistic, stylized use of lights, sound, a bare stage, a table, two chairs and a suit, Strathairn’s performance is honed with astounding authenticity and detail. It inspires our imagination to step into history and conceive what Karski experienced. Nothing distracts: we watch, listen, hear. The result is devastating, heartfelt and emotional.
Strathairn and the creative team immerse us in the action. The playwrights have incorporated Karski’s descriptions, which are specific, trenchant and vital. The music and sound are haunting; the lighting is symbolic. With on-point physicality, Strathairn remarkably enacts key events in Karski’s life as a Polish soldier. We watch as he fights against the German occupation of Poland. We cringe as he leaps from a moving train to freedom. We identify as he suffers his nation’s humiliation, privation and oppression. When he’s caught as a suspected member of the Polish resistance who has information, Strathairn’s Karski physically evokes the Nazi officials’ torture with a reality that materializes Karski’s statement that he was, “beaten with an inch of my life.”
Thus, all the more meaningful is Karski’s behavior after members of the Resistance assist in his escape from the Nazis. After he recovers, he persists and does whatever he can to stop the Nazi’s Jewish extermination machine. However, the Allied governments don’t appear to acknowledge or immediately intervene when he brings his eyewitness accounts to various leaders and officials (i.e. Anthony Eaton, President Roosevelt).
Karski’s intensity and sense of frustration at their inaction compels our own frustration and makes us question Allied motives. How can they not be moved by his accounts? His descriptions of the Warsaw ghetto where corpses rotted in the streets because the people could not pay the “burial tax,” are the solid state of inhumanity. We ask: how can this be? As Strathairn’s Karski describes the crowd in Auschwitz as “starving, hungry, insane, mad—I see their eyes . . . some organism with heads, legs, arms, noses,” the raw testimony drives us to accept Karski’s facts. And yes, Strathairn is breathtaking.
At Auschwitz viewing the “horrible, horrible scene,” Karski tries to control himself. However, emotion overwhelms him, and wisely, he leaves. He realizes if he “jumps at some Gestapo” and “fights him,” the mission will be lost. He must not do anything to jeopardize bearing witness to what he has seen in order to save Jewish lives.
Strathairn’s striking performance haunts us, as Karski was haunted. In his commentary, Karski reminds us to stay vigilant and “remember this.” He suggests “governments are soulless.” If anything is to be done, Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski reveals that soulless governments may be stopped by soulful, compassionate people.
Though Karski feels his mission failed and he didn’t stir up Eaton, Frankfurter, and Roosevelt to immediately stop the Nazi genocide, there was a greater response than he believed there to be. Countless lives were saved as Roosevelt prepared for a massive refugee effort to relocate Jews from Europe. His account had an impact then and it serves as a clarion call for us today.
Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski, is Strathairn at his most dynamic, stirring and unforgettable. Praise goes to director Derek Goldman and his selection of the following creatives: Misha Kachman (scenic designer), Ivania Stack (costume designer), Zach Blane (lighting designer) ROC Lee (original composition & Sound Design), Emma Jaster (movement director). Together, they allowed Karski’s story and adjurations to resonate with power.
Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski. Through October 9 at Theater for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center (262 Ashland Place, Downtown Brooklyn). 90 minutes, no intermission. www.tfana.org