By Karen Isaacs
When I first saw The Pianist of Willesden Lane at Hartford Stage in 2016, I was touched and totally immersed in this one-woman play. Seeing it again, I not only felt the same, but I felt the story of a young girl’s survival during WWII even more deeply.
Why? Perhaps it is the times we are currently living in – more incivility to each other, more hatred of those who are different from us, more turning away from those in need. Also the performance by Mona Golabek, the author, has deepened and become more alive.
For this is a story of a talented pianist, a teenage Jewish girl, who is one of the lucky ones to get out of Austria in 1938, who manages to survive in London and who becomes a concert pianist. It is reminder of how the arts – too often considered “frivolous expenditures” by schools and government, help the soul to survive.
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.
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 Jewish students. 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 July 22. For tickets visit Hartford Stage or call 860-527-5151.