“We see what goes on in the world … don’t we?”
Remember This is a close approximation to the presumed power of what it must feel like to watch this production, initially conceived for the stage, in person. In a one-man show anchored by one of the finest actors around, David Strathairn leads this moral crisis ignited by an individual’s dispassionate observation and unfathomable evil and further fueled by the incuriousness and inaction he finds on the world stage.
Among many other characters into whom he disappears, Strathairn portrays Jan Karski, a Polish resistance fighter in the earliest days of World War II who bore witness to the Nazis’ annihilation of Jewish people but whose testimony was swept under the rug by many nations as a plausibly deniable circumstance.
Karski is a man enveloped by an existence that’s expendable, who often managed to escape fate albeit with a long trail of conspirators’ bodies behind him. His own moral crucible is created by lying to survive when others could not — as Karski did early in life after capture by Russian forces — and adopting his own dehumanizing coping mechanisms as he observes oppressive ghettos and hellish death camps. Karski’s life became one in which he ate what he perceived to be his own sins of omission as well as those perpetuated by the deaf ears on which his findings fell — creating a crusade of atonement not only for the moral vacuum he believed to be at his center but at that of the world at large.
Thanks to top-flight sound design from Roc Lee and scenic design by Misha Kachman, Remember This generally avoids the typical spatially confining traps of filmed stage work. A few costume adjustments throughout indicate a change in circumstance or a gain in comfort (or vice versa). Lighting and sound effects make the set feel cavernous and cloistered by turns; the blinding, piercing coronas suggested by harsh streetlight-esque illumination in a Polish ghetto prove especially searing. (If anything is distracting, it’s the musical score, which too often sounds canned.)
Meanwhile, co-directors Jeff Hutchens and Derek Goldman are smart to let Strathairn steer the story. He vividly creates a central character wearied well beyond his youngest years and also commands the attention of the mind’s eye; you can always visualize the person on the other side of the spoken conversation Karski is holding. It’s a compelling and convincing turn, with a surprising amount of physicality (expertly choreographed by movement coordinator Emma Jaster) that elevates this from a mere monologue.
Although likely accurate to the historical record, the third act of Remember This becomes one encounter after another with underground resistance leaders and do-nothing politicos — all the way up to Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself (whom Strathairn played in 2017’s Darkest Hour, one of many pompously overblown biopics on which Remember This pops the balloon). It’s ultimately a bit padded to feature-length even at a relatively svelte 95 minutes. But Strathairn’s performance and thoughtful staging convey the disheartening feeling of individual powerlessness, the decimating effect of insufficient action and the precipice over which we would dangle should it happen again.
Remember This premieres at 9 p.m. EDT Monday, March 13 on PBS (check local listings), pbs.org/gperf and the PBS app.