The Pianist of Willesden Lane
Telling stories of the Holocaust on stage is a daunting and mind-numbing task. The sheer immensity of how six million Jews were slaughtered cannot be easily grasped. Stage plays in recent years, in order to successfully tell that story, have focused on a single individual - or families -swept away by the murderous Nazis. Last year, the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston staged "Captors," starring the incomparable actor Michael Christopher as Adolf Eichmann, one of the Nazi architects of the concentration camps, and we witnessed - and learned in harrowing detail -- how he ordered the systematic demise of millions.
This season we have the gifted concert pianist and author Mona Golabek appearing at the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre at ArtsEmerson’s Paramount Center in Boston in a haunting show, directed by Hershey Felder, about one woman and one Jewish family caught in the death grip of the Nazi machine, The Pianist of Willesden Lane. It is a must-see production that runs through December 16.
Through words and music played on an onstage concert grand piano, Ms. Golabek shares details about her mother, Lisa Jura, a Jewess living in Austria before the Anschluss, who dared to dream of becoming a concert pianist. Through vivid descriptions, aided by the use of projected photographic images on screens behind her, we are taken on a musical and historical kaleidoscopic journey. We soon learn that her dreams are about to be drowned out by the Nazi jackboots who have marched into Vienna.
Music played on the piano is sentimental, dreamy, and rhapsodic, even when rendered into snippets. One cannot help thinking of Adrien Brody’s portrayal of pianist and Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilmnan in Roman Polanski’s film, "The Pianist," which incorporated Chopin’s nocturnes in this manner. But in this play, these brief musical selections - which include pieces by Beethoven, Grieg, Bach and others - also reveal the layers of the musical composition, and, by turns, the narrative. It is a purposeful device which Ms. Golabek explains is used to expose "the layers of beautiful sound." Music, we come to discover, is like life itself, multilayered, complex. It can be a whirlwind of sound, or just a whisper - but it never ceases to move us.
It should be noted that Mona Golabek is a woman of slight build, with thin arms and a warm, animated face that lends itself easily into taking on the personas of not only her mother, but also by those her mother encounters: a teacher, a Nazi soldier, or a Jewish boy who fancies her, who, like her, has managed to escape Austria via the kinder transport, a life-saving mission that rescued thousands of Jewish children from the Nazi occupied territories. While the production demands a certain physical prowess one might attribute to a person of greater stature, Ms. Golabek’s physical fragilities grace the stage with such wistfulness that her character’s vulnerability - as well as her admirable strength - is revealed.
The play takes us to England, to descriptions of the Blitz that destroyed countless British neighborhoods and homes, including a hostel where Lisa is living. While the narrative borders on the mundane - details of all the children living together, their names and attributes - Ms. Golabek keeps us interested through animated gestures, the snippets of music interspersed throughout, and keeps us riveted by the anticipation of details of more dramatic moments to come. These include her mother’s debut at Royal Albert Hall in London, and the arrival of VE Day.
There will come a time when memories like those in this play will be handed down to grandchildren of survivors who will find their roots and go on to tell their children. To experience this story with Mona Golabek, the daughter of a survivor, we come to learn that her mother Lisa Jura was one of the lucky ones who managed to get on the train to freedom. Her survival helped to defeat the Nazi edict to exterminate an entire people. She and others like her spawned a new generation, and now that generation is carrying this legacy forward.
The Pianist of Willesden Lane, featuring Mona Goilabek, directed by Hershey Felder, is at ArtsEmerson, Boston, through December 16, 2012. For ticket information visit their website https://artsemerson.org/Online/pianist.