“Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski,” running at Berkeley Rep through Dec. 18, opens with an impassioned, stand-alone performance that emboldens audience members to bear witness to the life and legacy of professor and Polish World War II Holocaust witness Jan Karski.
Academy Award nominee David Strathairn eloquently captures Karski’s stirring humanity and anguish, enveloping audience members in a performance that resonates long after the final lights die out.
Amid the current rise of anti-Semitism, playwrights Derek Goldman and Clark Young attempt to break through the unrelenting haze of hate by offering an unfeigned recollection of Karski’s life, fostering a performance that places the horrors and preventable injustices of the Holocaust center stage.
For those unable to attend the live show, a black-and-white film adaption of the theatrical production, co-directed by Jeff Hutchens and Derek Goldman, is slated to air nationally as part of PBS’s Great Performances in spring 2023. Premiering first at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in July of 2022, the film adaptation has gone on to receive numerous accolades, including the World of Ha Change Maker Award at the Woodstock Film Festival.
Before the show begins, the stage conveys an unavoidable sense of loneliness; it is decorated only with a bare wooden table, an empty chair at its head and a lone chair cast to the side, draped with an overcoat and a pair of shiny shoes placed methodically in front. Typically a space of gathering, the empty table here feels more like a space of lost potential and isolation, a space that could have housed the imprints of many but instead can only convey the memories of the man who himself carries the burden of millions of lives unlived.
The table and chairs remain on stage for the duration of the show, acting as a train, a boat, a hospital cot, and more in support of Karski’s traumatic recollections. As Stratherin embodies different characters, the presence of these items reinforces the pervasive feeling of loneliness left in the aftermath of Karski’s experiences.
Dispelling with the traditional dimming of the lights and the silencing chime, the play opens with Strathairn wandering onto the quaint, still-lit stage shoeless and fiddling with the rolled cuffs of his button-up shirt. The suddenness of his appearance paired with the still visible faces of fellow audience members elicits a staggering hush from the audience, quite similar to the type one experiences when a lauded professor enters the room and dives immediately into lecture.
From the moment Strathairn enters the stage, he evokes a sense of familiarity that can only be attributed to the mechanics of routine; he asserts himself not simply as a theatrical character with a story to perform, but as a professor lecturing to a room of eager students. There is no attempt to mystify the fact that one is in an audience of a hundred others or that the black box in front of them is in fact a stage. Instead, Goldman’s inspired direction encourages the audience to experience the performance as a collective.
Building off the play’s strong emphasis on the importance of the intergenerational teaching and sharing of trauma, the co-authors of the text have developed a curriculum that draws from the life of Karski. Currently in practice for its third year at Georgetown University, Bearing Witness: The Legacy of Jan Karski Today is a course that engages undergraduate and graduate students by utilizing different modes of media — film clips, archived interviews and so forth — to familiarize students with Karski’s legacy.
Perhaps the most poignant moment of the play arises during the reenactment of the Blitzkrieg. An ear-splitting blast bursts through the stage, engulfing actors and viewers alike in a dense fog as the sound of bullets ricochets all around. If an audience member does not already feel part of a collective experience, this moment of sudden carnage thrusts them into the stark reality of war.
Goldman’s theatrical production of “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski” honors the memory, legacy and abject horror Jan Karski experienced and recorded during the Holocaust, ultimately crafting a performance that unites all in a shared experience of humanity, leaving audience members in the cold reality of what could have been (or not been) if others had bore witness to Karski’s truth.