“Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski,” which opened Thursday at the Theater for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, is less a memory play than a drama about how we must never forget. And also, how we each are called to do what we can to speak truth to power.
David Strathairn plays Jan Karski, a Roman Catholic who became a young Polish diplomat in the 1930s and ’40s and sounded the alarm to the Allies about the scope and horror of the Nazi Holocaust — he met with Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt to share his first-hand accounts of the slaughter of Jews in the Warsaw ghetto and in death camps. (He also later met with the filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, whose nine-hour Holocaust documentary “Shoah” brought new attention to Karski.)
Karski, who was blessed with a photographic memory, recounts some of that horror to the audience, and also the hardships he himself endured, including a brutal beating by Nazi soldiers in the mountains of Slovakia. The biggest hardship may have been dealing with his frustration that too few who heard his warnings responded with quick and decisive action to halt the extermination of millions.
Sometimes, as in the case of Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, they simply didn’t believe him at all. “I did not say that he’s lying,” Frankfurter tells the Polish ambassador who had set up their meeting in Washington in 1943. “I said that I do not believe him. These are different things.” (Frankfurter, who considered himself a judge of men, could not conceive that humanity could be so wicked.)
Strathairn cuts a fine figure in the role, adopting different accents to embody Karski as well as some of the other men he encounters. It’s unfortunate that director Derek Goldman, who wrote the script with Clark Young, plays a clip of the real Karski in “Shoah” in the opening minutes of the production — because as good as Strathairn is, the voices don’t match up.
Goldman also saddles his actor with a lot of fussy stage business — repeatedly putting on and then removing a jacket and necktie, for instance — and leans too heavily on an intrusive score (by Roc Lee) and cinematic lighting (designed by Zach Blaine).
There’s no need to dress up a story this raw.