Simply listening to Mona Golabek play the piano would be pleasure enough. But in her remarkable one-woman show The Pianist of Willesden Lane now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, her music goes far beyond the loveliness of a recital. Every note Golabek plays honors the mother who taught her to play and the grandmother who taught her mother to play. The music, in essence, is the story here.
For most of this play’s 90 minutes, Golabek plays her mother, Lisa Jura, who was a gifted piano student growing up amid the cultural wonders of Vienna, a city falling ever more under the influence of the Nazis. As a teenager in 1938, young Lisa notices the changes in her city, but when her beloved piano teacher must refuse her as a student because she is Jewish and he is afraid, the true horror of the Nazi regime begins to show itself.
Sharing her stage with a beautiful Steinway grand piano, Golabek plays almost as much as she speaks as she tells the story of how her mother, one of three Jura daughters, saw her father beaten in the street on Kristallnacht. That same night, her father reveals that he has one ticket for the Kindertransport, a train that saved thousands of Jewish children by relocating them to England. Lisa is chosen because her parents feel her music will keep her strong and help her to survive. “Hold on to your music,” Lisa’s mother tells her at the train station.
Music does prove to be a saving grace for Lisa, who ends up in a hostel for Jewish children in North London. For the duration of World War II she is separated from her family, and she demonstrates astonishing fortitude as she does what she must to survive.
Because this is her own family story, Golabek does not need to be a great actor to make this show work. But working with director Hershey Felder, Golabek is marvelous on all counts. She incorporates storytelling into her playing and makes it seem effortless. Felder and co-scenic designer Trevor Hay assist her with scenic elements that include Viennese gold trim around the central platform and ornate gold frames hanging around the stage to capture the subtle, non-intrusive and very effective projections by Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal.
Like so many Holocaust stories, this one is extraordinary and important. Adapted by Felder from the book by Golabek and Lee Cohen, The Children of Willesden Lane, this story is sensitively and movingly told.
But what makes it so powerful as a theater piece is the music in combination with the story. Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor features prominently in this tale, but we also hear some Beethoven, Debussy, Chopin, Bach and even a little Gershwin, among others. The music is infused with emotion generated by the story itself but also by the act of Golabek reaching through history and her family tree to connect, musically, with her mother and grandmother and their powerful stories.
Watch Mona Golabek perform Bach’s Partita in this short scene from The Pianist of Willesden Lane.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Pianist of Willesden Lane continues an extended run through Jan. 5 on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$89 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.