“I ask you: What is your duty as an individual?”
“There is no such thing as good nations, bad nations. Each individual has infinite capacity to do good, and infinite capacity to do evil. We have a choice.”
As you enter the theater, you see a bare, starkly lit stage furnished only by one wooden table, two chairs and a man’s jacket. But it creates a fittingly somber atmosphere for the profoundly moving, intense solo show about the life of Polish World War II hero and Holocaust witness Jan Karski (1914 –2000).
In an utterly remarkable tour-de-force performance, one of the best I’ve seen, Academy Award nominee David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck, Nomadland, and Lincoln), fully embodies Karski. As a young Polish diplomat, Karski bravely risked his life to report on conditions in the Warsaw ghetto and extermination camps in Poland during the years 1940-43. If only he hadn’t been met in the Oval Office and 10 Downing Street by disbelief and apathy. The acts of unbelievable inhumanity and cruelty Karski witnessed, as well as the Allied leaders’ indifference — what Karski deemed his failure — haunted him until his death.
Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski, written by Clark Young and Derek Goldman and directed by Goldman, is a production of The Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University, where Karski taught international relations and Polish history until he died in 2000. The mesmerizing drama has already enjoyed successful runs in Warsaw, London, New York, and Washington, D.C., among others.
In this one-person drama, Strathairn faces the audience, speaking in a Polish accent, as though to his Georgetown students. He describes his childhood, his university training in diplomacy and languages, and the overwhelming force of Germany’s invasion of Poland that destroyed millions of lives. He believably acts the torture he endured and his heroic escape from a moving train. His performance uses only the table, two chairs, and his clothing, accompanied by expert lighting (Zach Blane) and sound (Roc Lee).
We watch in awe as Strathairn acts the parts of Nazi soldiers, his debilitated widowed sister, an incredulous Justice Felix Frankfurter, and an unruffled Franklin Roosevelt. The actor is in constant motion on stage, whether he walks, kicks, jumps or writhes. As tempting as it might be for some actors, Strathairn never over-emotes or overplays his role. He relies on his all-knowing and sorrowful eyes to convey his emotions because the material doesn’t need embellishment.
Like many World War II soldiers and victims, Karski did not speak publicly about his wartime missions until 1981, when he spoke at a conference on the liberation of the camps. A slew of international awards, medals and honorary degrees followed, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded posthumously by Barack Obama.
Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski runs through Dec. 18 at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. It’s approximately 90 minutes long with no intermission. Proof of vaccination and mask-wearing is required. Tickets $26-$139, subject to change, can be purchased online or by phone at 510 647-2949.