The word “lesson” is right there in the title, and there’s no denying the educational aspect of “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski.” Still, it’s a gripping primer on the life of the eponymous witness to the Holocaust, starring a virtuosic David Strathairn.
Under Goldman’s inspired direction, these instructive and exhortatory dimensions coexist with scenes that, without devolving into mere entertainment, recall an edge-of-your-seat thriller. That’s hardly a reach, given the eventful life of Karski (1914-2000), a multilingual diplomat with a photographic memory who became a courier for the Polish underground during World War II. As the play relates, Karski infiltrated the Warsaw Ghetto and, disguised as a guard, a death camp. He later delivered an account of what he had witnessed to Allied leaders, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but it did not produce the action he and Jewish leaders had hoped for. (Karski was among those interviewed in Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary, “Shoah.”)
Strathairn (“Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Lincoln,” “Nomadland”) is a riveting presence who gets mileage from gestures as small as finger clenching. He emphasizes Karski’s quiet determination and humility, speaking in a singsong voice that often veers into a high register. Moving around, and sometimes over, the table and chairs that are the set’s sole furnishing, and occasionally changing an article of clothing, he portrays an older Karski looking back on a life that stretched from a Catholic boyhood in Lodz, Poland, to more than four decades of teaching at Georgetown.
There’s occasional humor, as when Karski reflects with a shove how “pushy” Lanzmann was about interviews. Suspense is a more frequent mode, with lighting designer Zach Blane and sound designer/composer Roc Lee helping to conjure such events as a Blitzkrieg bombing and an escape from a moving train. Movement is key — Emma Jaster is the production’s movement expert — as Strathairn dives, wriggles, stalks and recoils to evoke multicharacter stealth and violence. During a beating scene, he channels kicker and kicked in one fluid motion.
The script’s strategic meting out of revelation and memory adds to the emotional impact, with deliberately disorienting flashbacks spliced into the account of Karski’s capture by the Nazis and subsequent torture. (Afraid of spilling secrets, he attempted suicide, was hospitalized and escaped.)
Bookending the story, remarks by Karski — and a framing device featuring a narrator — further direct our attention to the story’s meaning and the notion of responsibility. “I ask you: ‘What is your duty as an individual?’ ” Karski demands at one point. He’s ostensibly addressing his Georgetown students, but he’s really talking to us.
Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski, by Clark Young and Derek Goldman. Directed by Goldman; scenic designer, Misha Kachman; costume designer, Ivania Stack. 90 minutes. $35-$120. Through Oct. 17 at Shakespeare Theatre Company, 450 Seventh St. NW. shakespearetheatre.org.