Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski (Shakespeare Theatre Company)
As David Strathairn takes the stage to begin each performance of Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski, he's not yet in character. We see a neat suit jacket, tie, shoes and vest, laid out as though for some alternate version of Mr. Rogers, but it's not their time yet; Strathaim is not yet Karski. He's also not quite himself, alone on stage in a spotlight. Instead, he comes out to ask the central question of the evening: in the face of suffering and injustice, what can we do? And more--what can you do? What can I do? In this performance, written by Clark Young and Derek Goldman and directed by Goldman, that question shapes the entire narrative of the story of Karski's life. It's easy to see how hard it is to work together to make change (it's not lost on the entire evening that Karski eventually settled in Washington, DC, after all), so what is our actual, individual responsibility in every moment to speak truth and find what we can do to help in the face of inaction and indifference?
There are many stories of the Holocaust that have been told, but the ones we like to elevate are often the ones where we can most easily measure triumph: this many lives saved, this many tiny victories. Karski's is a different kind of story as told in Remember This, one of the desperate need of an individual man to fulfill his goal of bearing witness. Strathairn's Karski is driven and humble, but always secure in his answer--the only thing to do, at any moment, is the right thing.
The production design stays humble as well, with a sturdy table and two chairs on a bare stage serving as the only set from designer Misha Kachman, and Zach Blane's lighting design does excellent work filling or highlighting the space for each moment. Roc Lee's sound design is excellent, as are his compositions for the piece, although at times the music does suffer from sounding a little too obviously synthesized. Goldman's direction manages the tricky of task of keeping a one-man show moving fluidly, while still finding moments of stillness. Emma Jaster's movement work with Strathairn is also excellent, despite often being tasked with finding new ways for Strathairn to attack himself on stage.
Oftentimes in biographical drama, a trap exists in the creation of the show--creators are moved to make a piece about a certain figure because they were somehow extraordinary, but the show can then become a cavalcade of moments of "look, weren't they amazing?" Remember This strays close to this at times, presenting a Karski that did his part to look out for Jews even as a child (wasn't he something?), but ultimately, balances this with Karski's own feelings that bearing witness wasn't enough. "What I can do" must be met with what you, what we can do. Our world today has horrors and suffering and persecution, and Young and Goldman are wise to bring us to the other central question of the play--what can each of us do now? When will be ready to hear when effort is required of us? Remember This asks us to look back and feel the suffering of the Polish Jews in the Holocaust, and to look around us today and find the voices we are ignoring. Who are our Cassandras, and who are our Karskis? It's never yet been the right time to sit back and congratulate ourselves on a job well done as a species, so it's only fitting that we need a reminder that the work remains to be done.