Karski died in 2000 at age 86, having put down roots in Washington after World War II and taught at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service for four decades. But the opening words in “Remember This” speak to both modern divisions and the atrocities that Karski risked his life to observe and document.
Written by Georgetown professor Derek Goldman and his former student Clark Young, the play was originally produced in 2014 by the university’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics to mark what would have been Karski’s 100th birthday. Emmy winner and Oscar nominee Strathairn has played Karski from the beginning, performing the role at events in Washington, New York, London and Warsaw and shooting an upcoming filmed version of the play.
Now, Strathairn steps back into Karski’s shoes at the Shakespeare Theatre’s Michael R. Klein Theatre amid a global pandemic and a political climate plagued by disinformation and denial that some would say is not that different from the kind Karski spent his life fighting.
“The ground seems to be shaking underneath a lot of the underpinnings of not only our democracy but our environment, and the state of the psyche of the world and its well-being,” says Strathairn, known for appearing in such films as “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Temple Grandin,” “Lincoln” and, most recently, the Oscar-winning “Nomadland.” “That’s some of the intention of the play: to connect events in the past that influenced the way the world would progress to events today.”
In a recent Zoom call, Strathairn discussed the responsibility of playing Karski, the play’s evolution over the years and how current events have made the material all the more resonant.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: There's obvious importance to sharing Karski's life story. But what was it about this play, specifically, that appealed to you?
A: I jumped at the chance because I had carried Jan Karski with me ever since I saw the documentary “Shoah.” It’s an extraordinary story on so many levels, but since he was a teacher for 40 years at Georgetown University, I often think that part of the personality of the creative arts is that there’s a component of teaching, and at least offering windows into the human condition. A lot of people who had him as a professor said he was exciting in his classroom; he performed the information, and he was somebody who could engage the students with very demonstrative skill. I thought, “Well, there it is: This man gives knowledge and experience by, in a way, performing it.”
Q: "Remember This" was a traditional play with a larger cast before being pared down to a solo show. How did that process play out?
A: We just followed the excitement — people asking, “Can we do it there? How about at this museum? How about at this moment and celebration?” It just felt like this snowball rolling down the side of a snow-covered hill, and it kept gaining momentum and attention, and we realized that to carry an ensemble of this piece might be a little cumbersome. So we started to hone it down to the shape that it’s in now — the one-man presentation.
Q: How would you describe the weight of playing Karski in a one-man play?
A: One of the most searing, inspiring things that drew me to it is what he spoke about — what he represents, what we say is “The Lesson of Jan Karski,” what he bore witness to and the life that he led. I constantly feel humbled and daunted and challenged. Hopefully [audiences] will walk away with something that will influence — however minuscule or in a large way — their own lives.
Q: Since you first took on the role seven years ago, how has the escalation of misinformation in the world made these themes even more urgent and timely and pronounced?
A: That’s a great thing to bring up because people who are now taking the avenues of communication for granted will see that information was once dependent on a man walking over the Pyrenees mountains, hiding in the woods, getting the truth of events to his government in exile — and sometimes taking weeks to get there, risking death and torture. Compare that to now, where you can have an instant Twitter from the other side of the world about some critical issue. The phenomenon of mis- or dis- or lack of information, or the overload of information, how do you parse it out? Wherein lies the truth? This play does speak to that phenomenon.
Q: What does it mean to tell this story in D.C., which was not only Karski's home but the climactic setting of the play?
A: It’s a magical dovetail between place and material. It was here where he ended his reporting, so to speak, to the highest office in the nation and to the most powerful person in the world at that time. And Washington, D.C., obviously was his home. So it has a lot of really wonderful confluences. I just I love that, in a way, it’s for him — it’s sort of bringing him home.
Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski
Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. shakespearetheatre.org.
Dates: Through Oct. 17.