Professor Jan Karski was, for 40 years, a well-liked, charming, mild-mannered professor of government at Georgetown University specializing (according to his Wikipedia article) in Eastern European affairs, comparative government, and international affairs. Prior to that, he was a Polish diplomat before and during WWII, when the Polish government was in exile due to the Nazi invasion of that country.
Such a person, though surely interesting, would not seem to be a likely candidate as a character for a dramatic solo play.
But prior to Karski’s professorial tenure, he had been a member of the Polish underground, fighting against the Nazis, and, more than that, had reported to the Polish government in exile, and to the allied heads of State in Europe and America on the plight of the Jews under the Nazis. He told of the holocaust while it was happening. And nothing was done. The Nazis slaughtered six million Jews, and the allies claimed afterwards that they did not know about it.
We know they knew, in part, because Jan Karski told of his efforts, in a memoir published during the war, in articles after the war, and in interviews, most notably for Claude Lanzmann’s monumental 9-hour holocaust documentary film, “Shoah.”
Karski’s career included war-time visits to the Warsaw ghetto as well as a death camp, arrest and torture, numerous clandestine trips around wartime Europe as a courier for the Polish underground, and more. His life was nothing if not both adventurous and meaningful.
Given the complexities of his story, and the passionate feelings of holocaust survivors, wartime participants, and holocaust apologists, deniers, and historical revisionists, it is no wonder that the details of Karski’s life and accomplishments have been subject to controversy and debate.
But for Karski, in his writings and interviews, one point, above all others, is perfectly clear: He was a reliable witness to atrocities. He reported what he saw to government leaders, including President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and was not taken seriously enough. Six million Jews perished, many of whom might have been saved.
The Laboratory for Global Performance & Politics at Georgetown University, where this play was originally developed and produced, states that its purpose is to “humanize global politics through performance. . . . [to harness] narrative, memory, and acts of witnessing with the aim of sparking transformation and change.”
Given those guidelines, it is difficult to imagine a more suitable subject for their work than Jan Karski.
And it is also difficult to imagine a better actor than the great David Strathairn to bring Karski back to life on stage. Straithairn’s performance is astonishing in every aspect, perfectly measured, devoid of obvious theatricality or dramatic trickery, honest, heartfelt, intelligent, perfectly realized.
He brings to life the charming and urbane Georgetown professor and diplomatic professional, gradually allowing the facade to crack and slip to reveal the impact on this man of the things that he witnessed. He uses every category of actorly skill to accomplish this: from vocal virtuosity to an impressively athletic physicality.
This is history with teeth.
It is inspiring. It is unforgettable. It is, if anything ever was, a “must see.”
“Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski” continues at Berkeley Rep Peet’s Theater through December 18. For further information, click here.
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
“Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski,” by Clark Young and Derek Goldman. Director: Derek Goldman. Produced at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theater by The Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics. Scenic Design: Mischa Kachman. Costume Design: Ivania Stack. Lighting Design: Zach Blane. Roc Lee: Original Music and Sound Design. Emma Jaster: Movement Direction.
Jan Karski: David Strathairn.