Honor Thy Mother

Review of The Pianist of Willesden Lane at Hartford Stage

We could all probably tell stories of sacrifices our parents made for us, but, for most, the particulars would be rather mundane. The story of sacrifice behind The Pianist of Willesden Lane, now playing at Hartford Stage, is anything but.

Mona Golabek in  The Pianist of Willesden Lane

Mona Golabek in The Pianist of Willesden Lane

Piano virtuoso Mona Golabek plays her mother Lisa Jura, the eponymous heroine of the play, who recounts her adventures as a child, during the rise of Naziism in Austria, her escape to London, and her eventual success as a concert pianist. Jura’s parents placed her upon the Kindertransport—a train that carried over 10,000 Jewish children from persecution in Nazi-occupied Europe to freedom in England—not knowing if she would arrive safely and having to choose her over her two sisters as the family could only afford one seat on the train.

The sisters, it turns out, did escape by other means, though the parents did not. With that kind of dire incentive, Jura, whose mother, Malka, urged her to depend upon music for help in dark times, went on to study classical piano and, in turn, taught her daughter. The bond between Lisa Jura and Mona Golabek is the spiritual tie that animates this straight-forward and inspiring tale, and that bond is based on music and the piano. Golabek, who speaks directly to the audience and recounts vignettes from her memoir of her mother, The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival, lets the music of Grieg, Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Scriabin establish the world that all three women—Malka, Lisa, and Mona—shared. We hear in Golabek’s expressive live playing the passion Lisa brought to the keyboard, so that Golabek’s musical performance pays tribute to her mother’s own development as a musician, using music to tell the story of how playing piano created both an identity and a consolation for Lisa.

The story opens with a very dramatic moment: Lisa, on her way to her piano lesson in Vienna in 1938, encounters a brusque Nazi soldier, then her teacher, after greeting her ashamedly, tells her he is now forbidden to teach Jewish students. The fact that she can no longer study music, it seems, is what determines the choice of Lisa as the child who will go to England. The departure itself is not over-dramatized, with Golabek and director Hershey Felder staying true to the nature of a memory play. We know from the start that our teller lives to have a successful career and to raise an adult child. As a survivor’s tale, The Pianist of Willesden Lane keeps before us the luck and determination needed to succeed, both of which Lisa Jura had, and of course talent. We see her resourcefulness when the family she was intended to stay with can’t house her, and she leaves the home they place her in, where her piano playing is not deemed “a skill,” to find a much more nurturing home on Willesden Lane. Later, her wartime stint in a piano bar playing Gershwin and show-tunes for soldiers earns her not a few admirers. One follows her to America, where Lisa goes to continue her career, and eventually marries her, becoming Mona’s father.

The storytelling is abetted by large screens disguised as period gilt mirrors hanging above the handsome Steinway piano onstage. The screens show family photos and clips from the streets of Vienna and London, and of the D-day invasion, helping to sketch the world that acts as backdrop to Lisa’s upbeat story. Golabek says her mother would tell her stories of wartime while teaching her the piano, and the play, as a dramatization of the daughter’s memoir, lets audiences experience the interplay of music and memory much as Golabek herself must. Particularly effective in this regard is the scene when Lisa auditions for the Royal Academy and a voice offstage instructs her when to switch between the pieces she has learned with much painstaking aid from her other inmates at Willesden Lane. The well-known bits of Beethoven, Chopin and others are both showpieces and a learned language between mother and daughter.

Felder and Golabek strike a nice balance: the music is Romantic, the storytelling is restrained. The veracity of the tale is aided by Golabek’s lack of staginess or pretension. Mimicking accents and mannerisms when the story calls for it, she is a rather self-effacing and untheatrical story-teller, letting musicianship, each time she steps to the piano, shine as the true hero of the tale. Without music her mother might not have survived or at least might have had little to live for, and without music she would not have an enduring connection to her mother and the grandmother she never knew.

The emotional tide of surviving surges up at the end when the play pays tribute to those who were able to make such difficult decisions for the sake of their children over themselves. We realize that The Pianist of Willesden Lane is an extended form of keeping the Commandment to honor thy father and mother. The production at Hartford Stage, with its very elegant staging on the semi-circular playing space, makes the show seem more like “a talk” with music rather than “a show” and that’s all to the good, establishing the bona fides of this direct and fascinating tale of destruction, hope, love, talent, and music.

Mona Golabek in The Pianist of Willesden Lane
Based on the book The Children of Willesden Lane by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen

Adapted and Directed by Hershey Felder

Scenic Design: Trevor Hay, Hershey Felder; Costume Design: Jaclyn Maduff; Lighting Designer: Jason Bieber; Original Lighting Design: Christopher Rynne; Sound Design: Erik Cartensen; Projection Design: Andrew Wilder, Greg Sowizdrzal; Dramaturg: Cynthia Caywood, PhD; Associate Direction: Trevor Hay; Production Manager: Erik Cartensen; Production Stage Manager: Kaitlin Lavella Kelly; Scenic Decoration: Meghan Maiya, Emma Hay, Jordan Hay; Hartford Stage Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Hartford Stage, March 26-April 26, 2015