‘Remember This’ at Chicago Shakespeare: Strathairn makes Olympian turn in a harsh tale
Review: “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski,” by Clark Young and Derek Goldman; directed by Goldman, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater through Nov. 14. ★★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson
The usual term that springs to mind after a performance like David Strathairn’s solitary turn in “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski” is tour de force. And while the phrase unquestionably applies, it falls hopelessly short. No, Strathairn’s remarkably physical, one well might surmise bruising, grapple with this historical figure – a Polish Roman Catholic who became the deflected messenger of Nazi Germany’s assault on the Jews – is better described as Olympian. Beyond the multiple characterizations he imbues with closely etched truth, the actor tumbles through a veritable decathlon of stage action.
Strathairn, it must be observed right up front, is 72 years old. I’m not sure how many septuagenarian Olympians prowl the earth, but I do not exaggerate in my report of this man’s physical prowess – or, at any rate, his durability. More than once, he’s knocked flat by an explosion. He’s smacked around by unseen Nazi tormentors whose imagined abuse looks real enough. For one reason or another, he’s bumped onto or tossed from a table that serves sundry purposes, most of them nefarious and violent.
These physical vicissitudes form the imagery for the harsh narrative about Karski, whose young life was changed forever that day in 1939 when German forces invaded his beloved Poland, infecting the land with the lethal venom of a self-styled master race. Through a sequence of circumstances, the Catholic Karski ended up joining the Polish resistance, then becoming the designated eye-witness to the Nazi atrocities committed against the Jews.
That’s putting it very gently. As Strathairn’s tumultuous performance depicts in graphic fashion, Karski’s progress from appalling street scenes to horrific tableaux in the Nazi death camps included his own survival of brutal interrogations and narrow escapes when he was marked for death, as well as long episodes of personal privation and danger.
So convincing is Strathairn’s impersonation of this intelligent and resolute man, complete with Polish accent and mid-action costume changes, that the actor simply disappears into the character. Well, that character and several others – notably President Roosevelt, who receives Karski and listens briefly to his account, only to dismiss him with assurances that the U.S. admires the Polish people and will not let them down. Karski’s report is about the threat of Jewish extermination; FDR’s response skips that part altogether.
The monodrama’s title, “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski,” essentially points to the indifference, disbelief or outright rejection that Karski encountered wherever he took his first-hand observations of the Nazis’ slaughter of the Jews. “Remember this. Remember this,” Karski is admonished by his guides as he visits scenes of unimaginable degradation and death, ever striving to keep his overwhelmed emotions in check so that he can remember and report accurately. But basically, no one ever takes him seriously, much less literally.
When the war was over, Karski, who was multilingual, enrolled at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where he would return to teach for four decades. Until very late in life, he never spoke again about what he had witnessed first hand. He died in 2000 at age 85.
“Remember This” is smartly crafted political theater, its message stark and compelling, though the outcome is known before the play begins. At 90 minutes, the show – and it is a show – feels a bit long. Not even Strathairn’s laser-like concentration can quite sustain so lengthy an arc. Still, what is best about the play is generously good. And Strathairn’s prodigious effort is something to remember.
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreInChicago.com