Wednesday, July 23, 2014
The Pianist of Willesden Lane
I think I have just seen the highlight of the 2014-2015 theatre season. I can’t imagine I will be as touched by any show between now and May as I was by The Pianist of Willesden Lane, which opened last night at 59E59 Theaters.
For most of the hour and 45 intermissionless-minutes I was unaware of even being in a theatre, so immersed was I in the story and the music and the performer who brought them to life. I was transported to Nazi-occupied Vienna and war-ravaged London, experiencing that world with a cast of characters who were as real to me as if I had known them.
Mona Golabek is not an actor, but she doesn’t need to be. Her passion for her story is nothing that could be learned. It has been lived by her family, most especially her mother, concert pianist Lisa Jura.
Adapted and directed by Hershey Felder, based on the book The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen, this one-woman play begins in 1938 Vienna where 14-year-old Lisa lives for her Friday afternoon piano lesson with her master teacher. She has inherited her love for music from her mother, also a pianist.
I admire Golabek for sharing their story. Solo plays are always hard, but I can’t imagine what it must be like to portray so much trauma from her family’s history, night after night. Wisely, she steers clear of heightened emotions, avoiding expression of anger, judgment or sentimentality. The story holds all the emotion one needs and she serves it well by her straightforward, gentle telling. I was not the only one crying at end. I could hear people sniffling and blowing their nose all around the theatre.
Alone onstage with only a Steinway grand, Golabek assumes the voice of her mother to tell the story. Young Lisa dreams of making her concert debut playing Grieg’s Piano Concerto at Vienna's storied Musikverein concert hall as she makes her way by streetcar to her beloved piano teacher. But she learns that her lessons are to be no more; he sadly tells her that because of new ordinances under the Nazi regime, teaching a Jewish child is now forbidden. Assuming the voice of the professor, Golabek recounts his regret that he is “not a brave man” as he bids his student farewell.
“You have a remarkable gift, and no matter what happens in your life, please never forget that. Good luck, Lisa. And Lisa, go with God.”
Shortly after, Lisa’s parents make the difficult decision to send her to England with the one Kindertransport ticket her father has been able to secure. Her older and younger sisters will remain. It is because of her musical gift that she is chosen. At the train station, her mother imprints on her the reason to live.
“Lisa, you must make me a promise. Never stop playing and hold on to your music, and I will be with you every step of the way. With every note, with every beat, with every phrase. I will be with you always.”
This charge propels Lisa to leave the grand English country estate where she is sent as a seamstress after she is forbidden to play the owner’s piano. She takes a train to London, finds her way to the organizers of the Kindertransport at Bloomsbury House and secures a two-week stay at a hostel run by a kindly woman named Mrs. Cohen.
The hostel is overflowing with refugee children, but Lisa is barely inside the door when she spots a piano and knows she has found her home. She goes over and begins to play the second movement of the Grieg concerto.
“Mrs. Cohen sat down in a chair, in disbelief. Through the living room window, I could see the neighbors outside. They put down their gardening tools and listened as the music drifted toward them.
"And one by one, the children came out of their rooms. There were dozens of them. They stool on the staircase in silence, listening.”
Lisa did indeed find a home there, and family with Mrs. Cohen and the children. She worked long hours sewing in a factory and playing the piano at night, even staying behind alone to play as the others fled to bomb shelters during the Blitz. Golabek brings all of these characters to life vividly.
Throughout the recounting of her mother’s life, Golabek plays appropriate works from Beethoven, Debussy, Chopin, Bach and, of course, Grieg. And she tells an affirming story of life and love and beauty that Lisa found through her music in spite of all the pain and loss that surrounded her.
I won’t give away the ending of what happened to Lisa’s parents and sisters, but will say that thanks to the encouragement and support of Mrs. Cohen and the hostel children, Lisa earned a scholarship to the London Royal Academy of Music and became the concert pianist she had dreamed of becoming as a child in Vienna.
Golabek has followed in her footsteps, having performed at the Hollywood Bowl, the Kennedy Center and the Royal Festival Hall. Standing ovations are automatic on Broadway these days, and rarely merited, but as the stage darkened after The Pianist of Willesden Lane, I was one of the first to rise for Golabek.
This limited engagement at 59E59 Theaters, through Aug. 24, marks the show’s New York City premiere, following critically acclaimed, sold-out runs in Chicago, Boston, Berkeley, and Los Angeles. As I walked home up Park Avenue, I considered myself blessed to have seen it.