Actor David Strathairn was nominated for an Academy Award in 2005 for portraying the legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow in the film “Good Night, and Good Luck.” He has been in demand for decades, from his early films with his college friend John Sayles (“The Return of the Secaucus 7” and “Eight Men Out,” among others) to Steve Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and the 2020 Best Picture winner “Nomadland.
Now he’s on stage through Nov. 11 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater portraying Jan Karski, a Polish resistance fighter and diplomat during World War II.
Below, an edited interview Strathairn.
Jan Karski lived a long life, dying at the age of 86 in 2000. Which part does the play chronicle?
Strathairn: It covers the scope of his life. We go back to the town [Lodz, Poland] where he was born in and grew up in. It’s a chronological journey. The concept is, he’s in his classroom as the teacher (Karski was a professor for 40 years at Georgetown). The conceit we’ve developed is that it’s a direct address to the audience as if they were in his class. It’s kind of a gestalt of his experience as a courier for the Polish underground and how he came to the West to report on what was going on.
What lessons can be learned from his life?
Strathairn: Why we need to remember our past and remember his moral courage. There are many lessons that can be taken from his life. We’re touching on a lot of them to inspire a lot of thought and discussion. It’s timely and timeless.
Despite his heroic efforts, he thought of himself as something of a failure. Is that fair to say?
Strathairn: It is fair to say. Throughout his time as a courier, he considered himself an insignificant little man committed to this mission of being a dutiful and reliable courier for information from the front to the government in exile. He carried with him a sense of failure because he got an audience with FDR and a Supreme Court Justice and the Foreign Secretary of England, Anthony Eden. Very powerful people in the world who could have made a difference and the fact that a difference was not made on the basis of his information. Yes, he had a sense of failure.
How was the play developed?
Strathairn: It comes under the umbrella of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics that is the creation of Derek Goldman, who’s the co-writer and director as well as the creator of that laboratory at Georgetown University. He’s also the head of the department there. It was originally a piece that was celebrating the centennial of Jan Karski’s birth, which we did a one-off thing at the school with students. We’ve been working on it together with Clark Young, who’s the other co-writer, for seven years. And it’s been in many iterations. It began as an ensemble piece with students both in Georgetown and Warsaw and the Jewish Heritage Museum in New York, and it’s been whittled down to a one-man piece.
Will this ever become a film?
Strathairn: We did a film capture of the play last year just as COVID was starting to shut everything down, we snuck under the wire and made a black-and-white film capture of the play. It looks like it could be released, if we’re lucky, early next year.
“Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski,” written by Clark Young and Derek Goldman, directed by Derek Goldman, and originally created by The Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University. Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents “Remember This” in The Yard through Nov. 14