The Pianist of Willesden Lane

by Meg Currell

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday April 19, 2016

Mona Golabek
Mona Golabek   

"The Pianist of Willesden Lane" is the story of a Jewish girl named Lisa in 1942 Austria whose family sent her, with the one ticket they were able to acquire, on the Kindertransport to England. This decision saved Lisa's life, but separated her from the family and life she loved, abbreviating her plans to become a famous pianist.

Mona Golabek brings this story, her mother's story of surviving the horrors of Hitler, to the stage at Portland Center Stage, shining a gentle light on a critical stage in her family's history.

The moment in time was a fulcrum for Lisa and for the world; Austria was not yet fully under the control of the Nazis, so the home Lisa left behind was intact in her memory; serene, loving, safe. Like a lifeboat shuttled away from a ship just before a torpedo hit, Lisa got away just in time.

But her timely escape didn't lessen her pain at separation, or her constant sorrow missing her parents and sisters. While managing tremendous uncertainty, the 14-year-old returned time and again, like a compulsion, to the comfort and understanding of playing the piano. When she played, she could be with her family in her mind, as her mother promised when they parted. "Stay with music-never stop playing. I will be with you in the music."

The piano was an escape and a means of moving her life forward; at her first "foster home" in England, upon hearing that she was forbidden from touching the piano, she left in the middle of the night, unwilling to live without the keys under her hands. Upon entering the hostel in London where she was sent next, she ran immediately to the piano and began playing; her music brought to her side the children who would be her family for the next three years.

At her job sewing uniforms, she saw stitching like runs on the piano, each piece sewn a phrase of a great line of music. After work, she would run to the basement of the hostel where the piano had been moved and practice long into the night.

When she was advised to audition for the Royal Conservatory, she objected that she had no piano teacher to guide her, no repertoire to prepare. Her hostel mates chose to push her themselves, acting as rehearsal masters, putting her through her technical paces for months until she was ready. After winning a scholarship to conservatory, Lisa started a job playing piano at a London hotel, where she eventually met her husband.

At every turn in the road, she followed music, and it took her to her life.

In this affecting one-woman show, Golabek performs in her mother's voice and with her mother's hands on a gorgeous concert Steinway grand flanked by giant picture frames showing her family and events at the time of the story, images that move with the narrative and the music.

Golabek's tenderness for her family gives her an open channel to their strength, determination, to the flicker of hope her mother used to keep herself alive. Lisa's piano teacher in Vienna told her of music, "I do this so that through all of our dark times, we never forget our humanity." It is that humanity that Lisa uses to inform all of her decisions.

As a classically trained pianist and former piano teacher, I must confess to being powerfully moved by "The Pianist of Willesden Lane." Its message of clinging to what makes you who you are; especially amidst hopelessness, turning to the pieces that define and comfort and express your pain and joy reverberated viscerally. In the darkest time in history, at a moment when the world nearly slipped into the grasp of the worst of human nature, Lisa protected her music ferociously. In turn, the music kept her safe, kept her moving ahead, kept her from giving in to despair.

At her victorious debut concert, Lisa played Grieg's "Piano Concerto in A Minor," a piece full of tumult and passion whose final flourish is joyfully defiant. The melody of that concerto entwines with Lisa's story; there is terrible darkness, trouble that threatens existence, but chance and persistence and strength push you through to moments of grace. Golabek tells a poignant story about her family and, more potently, about the human capacity for survival.

"The Pianist of Willesden Lane" runs through May 1 at Portland Center Stage, 128 NW 11th Ave, Portland, OR 97209. For tickets and information, call 503-445-3700 or go to http://www.pcs.org/pianist/

Meg Currell is a freelance author based in Portland, where she moved for the coffee and mountain views. With a background in literature and music, she explores dance, concerts and DIY with equal enthusiasm. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories.