The Pianist of Willesden Lane
By David A. Rosenberg
The pity of “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” at Hartford Stage is it’s all true. If that sounds like a contradiction, so be it. In telling the story of her mother’s escape from the Nazis before World War II and subsequent triumph as a pianist, Mona Golabek not only gives an indelible portrait of individual courage and persistence but a snapshot of the effect of war on a courageous population.
Golabek’s mother, Lisa Jura, was lucky to travel via the “Kindertransport” (Children’s Transport) which rescued Jewish children from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, to be re-settled in England. Left behind in Vienna were her parents and two sisters, whom she never saw again.
Before she escaped, Lisa’s own mother, also a pianist, admonished her to “hold onto the music.” Which she did, in between such jobs as a diaper-washing nanny and a factory seamstress. Music was Lisa’s salvation, even while bombs were falling, destroying the group home where she eventually resided.
It was at a concert by the famed Myra Hess where Lisa heard words that, along with her music, became something to hold onto: “I hope through all these dark times,” said Hess, “we never forget our humanity.” Chopin, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven and especially Grieg become the touchstones of that humanity.
Based on the book, “The Children of Willesden Lane,” by Golabek and Lee Cohen, the emotional evening (one can hardly call it a play) was adapted and directed by Hershey Felder, who has performed his own one-man Gershwin show at Hartford Stage. Although Felder can’t get much variety into the memoir – Golabek moves mainly from piano platform to stage and back again – he avoids making the memories into a presentational lecture.
Trevor Hay’s scenic design in part consists of large gold frames onto which are projected period photos and movies. Along with gold-fringed steps, the look is that of some elegant Old World space, evoking a peaceful, pre-war Europe. As lit by Jason Bieber, with sound design by Erik Cartensen, its nostalgia is tinged with the uncertainty and loss that Golabek so movingly depicts.
At times assuming her mother’s identity, at others being herself, Golabek may not be an accomplished actress (she swallows her final words), but, boy, can she play those ivories. In a world of hatred, cruelty and destruction, she demonstrates that the arts are the only wholesome, enduring constants. ”Hold onto the music” indeed.