Trepidation is perhaps the word that best describes how I felt when waiting for The Pianist of Willesden Lane to begin at Hartford Stage. It was not my feeling when this one person show ended. I was thoroughly enthralled.
Why the trepidation?
The Pianist of Willesden Lane is a one-person play. Too often such shows rely on contrivance – a phone rings, someone is at an unseen door — to try to bring other people into what is basically someone telling us a story. In this case, the play was based on a book by the performer, who is not a professional actress. She is a concert pianist though she has been the subject of several documentaries and has hosted a radio program.
One person plays are attractive to theaters due to the lesser costs involved and to performers who can bring out the show easily whenever they are “at liberty.”
Yet both this story and this performance — which includes classical music — is compelling.
The story is based on the book The Children of Willesden Lane that was co-authored by Mona Golabek. Her mother, Lisa Jura was a 14 year-old Viennese piano student in 1938 as the Nazis were tightening the restrictions on Jews in Austria. She has dreamed of making her concert debut playing the Grieg piano concerto, but her teacher is prohibited from teaching students. On Kristallnacht the family survives but the father is humiliated on the streets.
Lisa’s father has secured one ticket for the Kindertransport — the train that took Jewish children out of Nazi territory often to England and the parents select her — rather than her two sisters — to escape. At the train station, her mother tells her to “hold onto her music.”
We hear about Lisa’s journey to London — her cousin who was supposed to take her in but cannot — and her stay as a seamstress at a fine house outside of London. When she is told that no-one is allowed to play the piano, she packs and leaves arriving in London with no place to stay and no money. The Jewish Refugee Office places her in a youth home/hostel for young refugees on Willesden Lane. There she meets other teenage girls and boys who have also escaped. She works in a sewing factory but manages to play the piano, teaching herself. Her letters to her parents and sisters return marked as undeliverable. It is 1944.
And soon the implausible happens. The house mother sees a notice announcing auditions for the Royal Academy of Music. Lisa is urged to apply and her friends at the house help her prepare. The miracle is that she is accepted! While at the Academy she plays piano in a hotel where servicemen relax.
After the war, she is reunited with her two sisters. She goes to America, marries the French resistance fighter she had met while at the Academy, and later teaches her daughter, Mona, to play the piano.
As the play opens, Mona addresses the audience and tells us she will be telling her mother’s story. But from there on, she IS her mother. She manages a touch of a German accent, she transforms herself into a teenage girl, and she also becomes some of the other characters in her story. She intersperses the story with excerpts of the music that kept Lisa’s soul alive during the dark years — Beethoven, Chopin, the Grieg piano concerto and more. They remind us of the power of music for the soul.
Hershey Felder adapted the book and has directed this piece. Felder has previously performed at Hartford Stage in his one man show George Gershwin Alone and has also written one-person shows about other composers as well as composed classical music. He obviously has worked with Mona — and sent her to a fine acting coach — on her performance and it shows. As director and adaptor he has kept the story focused and touching, helping it to build to the climax of V-E Day.
He is ably assisted by a fine scenic design (Trevor Hay and Felder) which features several areas for performing as well as three large gold frames. Those are filled with photos and film by projection designers Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal. Jason Bieber has lit the piece well. Kudos to sound designer Erik Carstensen for his fine sound design; the piano is sufficiently loud and he has add appropriate sound effects that help us visualize the events we are hearing about.
You are bound to be touched by the last minutes of the 90-minute, intermissionless play. It reinforces the resiliency of the human spirit and the will to survive.
The Pianist of Willesden Lane is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford through April 26. For tickets visit Hartford Stage or call 860-527-5151.