Jan Karski was in the early stages of a career as a Polish diplomat when the Soviets and Nazis invaded his country and divided it up in 1939. He spent time as a prisoner of war and his suffering and harrowing escapes provide much of the drama in “Remember This,” the riveting one-man show playing at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
Set on a spare stage, with just a chair, a simple table and inventive lighting, Emmy winner and Academy Award nominee David Strathairn needs nothing else to bring Karski to life. The seventy-two-year-old actors’ actor brings impressive physicality to the work, even throwing himself onto the stage at one point as he simulates being knocked to the ground by an explosion. And the relevance to our time crystallizes in his tales of seemingly random violence enacted by Nazis and their sympathizers early in the story as they parallel the massing of armed right-wing forces in America, whether in Kenosha or at the U.S. Capitol.
Karski joins the Polish Resistance and bears firsthand witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust, which he shares with British leadership and eventually United States President Franklin Roosevelt himself. But he is unable to effect a change in Allied strategy to reflect the information he’s shared, and is even told his story could not be true by Jewish Supreme Court Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter. He feels like a failure.
But his story gets told. Like Oskar Schindler, Karski was a gentile who, over time, was lionized through culture as a rare and important ally of the Jews. (Karski published a best-selling memoir in 1944 and was later interviewed by director Claude Lanzmann for the seminal documentary “Shoah.”)
This is powerful, heartbreaking theater. And theater with a mission, as it was developed at The Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University by playwrights Clark Young and Derek Goldman. And in that regard, I had unanswered questions that I’d hoped might be addressed in the talkback. While it was interesting to hear behind-the-scenes stories about how the play was created, I wanted to see dots connected to the world today about that lesson in the show’s subtitle.
The phrase “remember this” is something of a mantra, an adjunct to “never forget.” And while we may in fact well remember the Holocaust thanks to shows like this, we collectively ignore its lessons. Mass killings have routinely been carried out since World War II, including in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bangladesh, Zaire, Uganda, East Timor and Burundi. In fact, genocides are ongoing in Darfur and in Myanmar.
So what did we learn?
At The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 East Grand on Navy Pier through November 14.