Telling your parents’ story to a room full of people is no easy task, let alone a story with as much emotional heft as this one. And yet this is exactly what Grammy-nominated concert pianist Mona Golabek manages to do in her acclaimed one-woman show, The Pianist of Willesden Lane.
Through a fast ninety minutes, Ms, Golabek tells the story of Lisa Jura, her mother, who at the tender age of 14 was separated from her family and sent to London, England on the kindertransports, or “children’s trains.” As World War II began to germinate in the heart of Europe, British charities helped move thousands of children to England from their home countries. With the Nazi threat looming, the first kindertransport arrived in Harwich, England in December, 1938.
Set in Vienna in during that year, and following her trip to England during the onset of the war, Ms. Golabek interlaces her mother’s harrowing tale of survival and self-discovery with riveting piano performances from greats the likes of Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Bach and Beethoven. Her sole co-stars in this time-spanning performance are a gorgeous Steinway piano and four hanging picture frames, which serve as a visual accompaniment to the mostly auditory nature of the show. Combining the music and visuals with Ms. Golabek’s somber, yet hopeful monologues, The Pianist of Willesden Lane capably tells the story of a little girl’s escape from danger without suffocating the audience under the weight of the occasion.
And yet, this story is not only one of a young girl escaping the Nazi threat, it also touches on the power of music in our lives, and how something like a piano can anchor us even when the world seems to be falling apart. In one particularly poignant moment sirens blaze and images of war flash across the four picture frames hanging above the stage. With the German Luftwaffe raining bombs on the city, Ms. Golabek pounds out an entrancing Rachmaninoff dirge on the piano. It’s a particularly effective scene combining all the best elements of the play.
Although she never imagined herself on stage, and certainly wasn’t a trained actor before this project, Ms. Golabek knew this is exactly what she wanted to do. “I was destined to tell this story, there’s no question I feel this now,” she says when asked why she decided to go from the music hall to the stage. Along the way she got help from greats like artist and producer Hershey Felder and acclaimed acting coach George Fine.
Along with her wildly successful stage play, she has also published a book on the story and started the Hold On To Your Music Foundation, set up with a mission to “expand awareness and understanding of the ethical implications of world events such as the Holocaust, and the power of the arts, especially music, to embolden the human spirit in the face of adversity.”
One would imagine having reached such a level of success, Ms. Golabek could rest on her laurels and leave her legacy wafting within each piano note she plays, and yet it is her work with the foundation that she is most proud of. “If I can inspire a person to make something of their lives, or give them strength or hope, that’s the greatest fulfillment I get,” she says.
Touching lives and telling stories is exactly what The Pianist of Willesden Lane is all about. This is as much a story about music, loss and hope as it is about a mass migration of refugees seeking escape from the terrors of war. “When you think about the great humanitarian crisis of such a vast proportion unfolding today, my mother’s story is so timely,” says Ms. Golabek. Timely indeed, and yet one can only wish there was more time to tell it.
The Pianist of Willesden Lane is playing on the U.S. Bank Main Stage at the Gerding Theater at the Armory in downtown Portland now through May 1. Showtimes are Tuesday through Sunday evenings at 7:30 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. (excluding April 23), and Thursday matinees at noon. Tickets may be purchased at Portland Center Stage’s website, 503.445.3700, or the Gerding Theater at the Armory box office (128 NW Eleventh Avenue, Portland, Oregon). For more information, click or tap here.