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One man’s voice recounts the horrors of the Holocaust and implores us to ‘Remember This’

This is not an easy play to watch; even if you have heard these stories before, and if the internet is any indication, far too many have not.

David Strathairn stars as the title character in the one-man show “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski.”
David Strathairn stars as the title character in the one-man show “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski.”
Teresa Castracane Photography

Would you do the right thing even if it didn’t matter?

Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski” now playing at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, teaches us that doing the right thing is always worth it, and that doing the right thing always matters.

Acclaimed actor David Strathairn (“Good Night and Good Luck,” “Nomadland,” “Lincoln”) embodies the titular role of Karski, a Polish citizen who witnessed the atrocities of the Holocaust firsthand and reported them to the highest authorities — only to be met with horrific inaction by those duty-bound to protect the sanctity of human life.

Writers Clark Young and Derek Goldman masterfully craft a lean narrative around this overwhelmingly complex and emotional story that packs a powerful punch in 90 minutes. Initially conceived as part of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University, the production’s plans to travel globally were temporarily halted due to COVID-19, and have thankfully since resumed, as this story is more timely than ever.

Staging a semi-biographical work of this gravity requires a sophisticated touch, and director Derek Goldman sets a nearly empty stage, save a wooden table and two chairs, allowing room for memories and the imagination to take center stage.

Strathairn successfully walks a delicate path in representing Karski and his remembrances, wearing each character like a thin veil, without falling into caricature or comedic stereotype, even in moments of levity. From the moment he unassumingly steps upon the stage, wearing socks, his deft approach swiftly draws the audience in, garnering rapt engagement for the entire performance.

Jan Karski (David Stathairn) divulges the atrocities of the Holocaust in “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski” now playing at The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
Jan Karski (David Stathairn) divulges the atrocities of the Holocaust in “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski” now playing at The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
Teresa Castracane Photography

Lighting Designer Zach Blane enhances Strathairn’s storytelling prowess by gracefully shifting from stark angles to atmospheric nebulous washes, as Karski’s story morphs from an unremarkable life, to refugee, to resistance spy. Blane looms haunting shadows when Hitler’s presence is evoked, and the worst begins to manifest into reality. Roc Lee’s sound design is exquisitely subtle and effective, buoying each scene with layered meaning, without becoming treacly.

Strathairn’s portrayal of Karski will hold special resonance for those interrogating what allyship should look like. Karski’s allyship and bravery developed and deepened the more he allowed it to intersect with his humanity in the face of incomprehensible cruelty to Jewish people. At one point he says: “Each individual has infinite capacity to do good; each individual has infinite capacity to do evil.” As we witness Karski moving ever closer to truth even as it nearly cost him his life, we are left to wonder why so few others were similarly moved.

One of the things that makes “Remember This” so compelling is that it does not provide easy answers. Instead of easy platitudes, it zooms in on the intractable knot of one of humanity’s worst sins — complacency. Karski frequently referred to himself as “an insignificant little man,” yet never let his humble existence bar him from taking each small step forward in the path of righteousness, from working with the Polish Underground Resistance, to volunteering to bear witness to the atrocities of the Warsaw Ghetto and a Nazi Extermination camp.

This is not an easy play to watch; even if you have heard these stories before, and if the internet is any indication, far too many have not. In an era of spin and fake news, it is essential to learn of the indifference of multiple government officials, all the way up to Franklin D. Roosevelt, and realize that only due to Karski’s testimony, do we now realize that when these men claimed ignorance to genocide, it was a lie. It is necessary to become angry at their complacency and wonder how this could happen and how can we all band together stop it from happening again.

And that is the triumph of “Remember This.” Though we collectively believe in the power of art to create change, that claim is often left unconfronted. The play is bookended with a call to action, to look inward and ask what we can do to create change — and if we are already doing something, to do more. At one point Karski is quoted as saying “Great crimes start with little things, like disliking your neighbor for being different.” “Remember This” poses the radical thought that every action, no matter how small, has great meaning.