Everything Mona Golabek does on the stage is methodical.
The ebony and ivory keys that encompass the grand Steinway sit silent, resting, while Golabek presents herself downstage to an eager audience at the onset of her solo show. Her presence is measured, a woman of calm and warmth, exuding a supreme confidence as she begins to tell a haunting story of the woman who raised her, and the souls that saved her.
As we learn more and more about Golabek’s mother, Lisa Jura, in the scintillating Bay Area return of “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” which has taken root at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in Mountain View, we learn that this is not only a story of tragedy but one of hope and bravery.
Jura was only 14 when she escaped her native Austria, saying goodbye to her parents and traveling via the Kindertransport, finally settling in London. Fear and uncertainty gripped her, forcing her to grow up quickly away from the parents she would never see again. The transitions for Jura, a young teenager but an older child, were filled with rocky disappointments and the fear that comes with living in a new land.
Golabek plays her mother at 14, narrating her perilous journey through a gentle voice and her scintillating mastery of the piano. Every note is a master class in methodical passion, her eyes closing as she strikes the delectable grand that occupies center stage while soft projections designed by Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal dance above her, helping the narration move forward. That narration begins with the one thing that Jura loves but will lose – a piano lesson from her teacher who has been told to stop giving her lessons because he cannot teach Jewish students. His admitted lack of bravery sends him to his exit.
It’s the first of many in her life who do not or cannot stay near. Her father, a tailor, scrums up some funds to pay for a ticket on the Kindertransport. But there is only one ticket, and Lisa is the oldest. In the cruelest math lesson a young child can have, Lisa learns that one ticket equals one escape, even though she has two younger sisters.
Directed by Hershey Felder with a certainty that comes from his own knowledge of creating a stylized piece he has personal experience with, each song reflects a perilous journey, a temporary victory, a painful truth or a human triumph. Just listen to the masterful tempos of Claude Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” as it fills the empty spaces in the room with haunting, staggered pace. As you listen to the chaos and resolution that the song provides, images of the Holocaust’s horrors are brought forth.
It’s the painful sadness that the audience is given to process, while the irony and contrast of beautiful music reflects those images – children who sit on a curb hoping no one will notice, an old man who dusts himself off as he struggles to peel himself from the pavement, his only friend a cane that helps him up, and the sad, wandering woman. She holds a baby and walks in one direction, but abruptly stops and turns around.
It is obvious that the parallels which exist between the wandering woman and young Lisa have everything to do with the fact that they both have nowhere to go. And while the wandering woman eventually drops out of our view, Jura stays with us as she attempts to awaken the souls around her, playing any stray piano within a few feet of her.
She finds success in moments, and disappointment in others. Her adopted home in Willesden Lane is destroyed from the Blitzkrieg, and despite the fact that Jura entered her early adult years as the war was coming to a close, piecing together a life and the vicious realities that awaited were going to contribute to a lifetime of pain. The lists, the endless lists, provided a glimmer of hope, but for many, that flicker extinguished firmly and immediately.
Despite the losses that Jura suffered, there are moments that brought her up from the brink. A shy, French soldier who deemed her the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, a life in the United States and a child to provide piano lessons for awaited. Her own piano lessons are critical examples of selfless love from those precious children who surrounded her.
Golabek never met the grandparents that saved her mother’s life. But she, the third generation of girls whose mothers gave them piano lessons, keeps all the joy and pain alive, the transcendent power of music on full display in this performance.
When Golabek closes her eyes as she plays, which she frequently does, what does she see? What is she feeling?
It’s not hard to imagine that as Bach’s Partita or Chopin’s Nocturnes magically come alive from her divine fingertips, there are two generations of mothers who rest their celestial hands on her shoulders every single night.
In those moments, the power of love, the triumph of humanity and the magic of music ascends to the heavens.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley presents “The Pianist of Willesden Lane”
Performed by Mona Golabek
Adapted and Directed by Hershey Felder
The Word: As the Holocaust becomes further and further away with each passing year, stories such as this one, about the bravery of a young girl and those who influenced her life, are incredibly important. Golabek’s stunning abilities as a pianist are captivating.
Stars: 5 out of 5
Based on the book “The Children of Willesden Lane” by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen
Through Feb. 16th
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro St., Mountain View, CA 94041
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets range from $27 – $94
For tickets, call (650) 463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org