clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

David Strathairn brings an ‘almost James Bondian’ story to Chicago Shakespeare

Oscar-nominated actor’s one-man show ‘Remember This’ shines a light on Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski.

David Strathairn stars as the title character in “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski” at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.
David Strathairn stars as the title character in “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
Teresa Castracane Photography

Oscar-nominated actor David Strathairn has never shied away from portraying complex historical figures, with roles ranging from White Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte (“Eight Men Out”) and Police Chief Sid Hatfield (“Matewan”) to Edward R. Murrow (“Good Night, and Good Luck”), Secretary of State William Seward (“Lincoln”) and outspoken novelist John Dos Passos (“Hemingway & Gellhorn”).

Also a seasoned Broadway actor, Strathairn has found one of his most challenging portrayals on stage in “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski,” which is making its Chicago debut at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. The goal of the one-man show is to shine a light on Karski, a World War II Polish resistance fighter, whose legacy is little known today.

“Jan Karski was an extraordinary person,” Strathairn says. “The story of his life needs to be told and retold and kept fresh in the minds of people who are grappling with questions of how to bear witness with what is going on in our world today.”

Karski (1914-2000) was an eyewitness to Nazi atrocities, and the information he smuggled out of Poland included some of the earliest accounts of the Holocaust that were met with disbelief by leaders in London and Washington. After the war he earned a Ph.D. from Georgetown University, where he would spend four decades on the School of Foreign Policy faculty.

Karski didn’t talk much about his wartime exploits until 1985, when he was asked to participate in “Shoah,” director Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust. He was later named to the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, and honored posthumously in the United States with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.

As a professor of theater and performance arts and co-director of The Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown, Derek Goldman was familiar with Karski’s legendary status as a professor. But it wasn’t until Karski’s centennial birthday when he was asked to develop a piece about him that he began to dig into his full story and became “fixated on its power and resonance.”

Goldman, along with co-writer Clark Young, began collaborating on the project in 2014, basing the script on interviews, archives and Karski’s memoir, “Courier from Poland: The Story of a Secret State.”

Goldman, also the play’s director, immediately reached out to his friend Strathairn, a collaborator on several previous projects: “I had an immediate feeling that David’s particular humility and approach and spirit would be a fit. There’s a technical virtuosity here but also what I think of as a spiritual virtuosity in terms of the different registers of humanity that David goes through.”

The setting is Karski’s classroom and the audience his students as he recounts his timeline during the war from serving in the Polish army to his escape from a Soviet labor camp to his service in the Polish underground and his later trips to London, where he met with British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, and to the U.S., where he met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

David Strathairn as real-life World War II hero Jan Karski in “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski,” written by Clark Young and Derek Goldman.
David Strathairn as real-life World War II hero Jan Karski in “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski,” written by Clark Young and Derek Goldman.
Teresa Castracane Photography

“Karski’s story is almost James Bondian,” says Strathairn. “And he was very demonstrative in his anecdotes and his teaching, and we thought that could dovetail with the theatricality of a one-man show.”

“Remember This” (a film version is due out next year) began as an ensemble work with Strathairn and students at Georgetown but morphed into its solo incarnation only after the creative team spent time in Krakow with student actors who brought their very physical skills to the workshop.

By the end of that week, they started to stage moments with a much more intense physicality than what is normally thought of in a one-man show, and the role began to morph into a very physical one for the 72-year-old actor whose performance is now anything but static.

On a minimalist set with few props, Strathairn’s physicality (a tumble from a moving train, Gestapo beatings, etc.) became key to the storytelling, says Goldman, who admits he was at first resistant to a one-man show.

“But we started to see how the piece could be active and alive and carry us through the events of the younger man’s life through the older man’s body in a really evocative way,” Goldman says. “We saw that this could have a visceral impact on the audience. David’s performance is a physical feat but also an incredibly textured emotional feat.”

Strathairn and Goldman both hope that the play sparks a dialogue, one that finds resonance in today’s world.

“It’s not often that you get the chance to pursue this kind of character, to pursue this kind of story in a dramatic form where we all felt the application was something more than just entertainment,” explains Strathairn. “We are hoping that the questions that surround Karski’s legacy are entertained in a very serious and thoughtful way.”

Goldman adds that “this is not simply a play about looking back on history.

“But rather one that resonates with a moment and the status of truth and what it means to bear witness. Karski spoke to this notion of individual responsibility, the idea that individuals can make an impact on the world around them. This is a project that we hope can bring people together in difficult dialogue rather than make a case for one thing over another thing.”