The Pianist of Willesden Lane

by Cassandra Csencsitz

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday July 27, 2014

Mona Golabek is the pianist
Mona Golabek is the pianist  (Source:Carol Rosegg)

It would be hard to imagine pain and joy more intertwined than in Mona Golabek's "The Pianist of Willesden Lane," the one-woman show/piano concerto currently sending waves of tears into 59th Street.

And like waves, the beautifully wrought mix of direct-address storytelling and mostly classical piano repertoire lulls you into its world, first of 1938 Vienna and then England through the Blitz. At late middle age, decorated pianist and unschooled actress Golabek plays her own mother, the young Jewish pianist Lisa Jura, at age 14 -- from the bitter loss of her beloved piano teacher after teaching Jews was outlawed, to her long-dreamed-of professional debut playing Grieg's "Piano Concerto in A Minor," not in Vienna's Symphony Hall as in her childhood dreams, but in battered London on the heels of D-Day.

With the simple elevation of her voice to a girl's pitch, Golabek tells the story of her mother's sudden good-bye to family and home after her father, a fine tailor reduced to gambling, won a single ticket on the same night's kindertransport -- the rescue train run by British charities that transported Jewish children from Nazi-terrorized regions to safe refuge in England.

Her mother Malka, also a pianist, musters parting words that set the tone for Lisa's life: "Lisa, you must make me a promise. Never stop playing and hold on to your music and I will be with you every step of the way. With every note, with every beat, with every phrase, I will be with you always..." We then accompany the indomitable Lisa, sustained by her love of family and music, as she is shuffled between benign and beloved residences, most formatively the hostel at Willesden where the community rallies around her and her musical aspirations.

Courtesy of Golabek's storytelling ability under the direction of Hershey Felder, who also adapted the story for the stage from Mona's 2003 book, "The Children of Willesden," I watched on opening night as if through my own 14-year-old eyes. Vienna, the English countryside and London all materialized against the elegant set: a Steinway backed by four gold art frames holding screens onto which were projected a stream of family pictures, historical photos and wrenching video footage of bereft Jews in Nazi hands.

Throughout the true story, Golabek acts out the other impressionable characters with charm -- her mother's benefactors with appreciation, the villains without hate. Most delightful is how, at times, the story is told from the keys, as naturally as a jazz musician's improvised repartťe. Golabek keeps all her balls in the air with the pianist's ability to multi-task.

Most delightful is how, at times, the story is told from the keys, as naturally as a jazz musician's improvised repartée.

Inspiring not only the "Willesden" book and play, the last words Lisa ever heard her mother speak inspired Golabeck to found the charity Hold On to Your Music, with its 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." Adversity comes in many forms and passion's power to combat not only great violence and loss but banality and angst, vanity and triviality, self-pity and bitterness, "Willesden" offers much for any modern theatergoer and parent to consider.

As a study in faith or hope, the power Lisa's family and her music exerted over her heart may be the story's greatest lesson. Even when they were out of sight -- or sound, as when for six months employed in a foster home where the piano was meant only "to be looked at" and she practiced silently above the keys -- she never felt cause for despair. At times of trouble, when we cannot know outcomes and fear the worst, when we are alone, love can overrule the senses.

One of the things I appreciated most about "The Pianist of Willesden" is something, as an Episcopalian-reared Midwesterner, I often admire when included in Jewish occasions. In my childhood, if it appeared that dark references might cast a pall, the family refrain tended to be "Let's not speak of such things."

In contrast, at my good friends' Seder dinner here in New York, each year we read a children's book version of Haggadah to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Boil epidemic and all, I revere every moment as a fortifying act of remembrance, of holding the darkness close but the lightness closer.

Since her show opened to L.A. audiences in 2012, Mona Golabek has put herself through a nightly remembrance of incalculable pain that doesn't get much closer than one's mother. Yet her love of music, deep pride in family, and appreciation for the gift of life outweigh the sorrow by so much you can almost hear the departed saying, "It's all right, you were worth it." Just as they persuaded the little girl they deeply loved and might never see again that everything would be okay, or she might never have boarded that train full of young strangers to the faraway place where she would be free.

"The Pianist of Willesden Lane" runs through Aug. 25 at 59E59, 59 East 59th Street, in New York. For tickets or information, call 212-279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org.

Cassandra Csencsitz is a New York-based arts and beauty writer. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Theatre from Kalamazoo College and Master of Arts from St. John's College's Great Books Program. Cassandra met her husband in Greece on the University of Detroit Mercy's Classical Theatre Program and they are now the bemused parents of two. Cassandra is the Communications Director for Trish McEvoy Beauty.