Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

April 8, 2015

The Pianist of Willesden Lane

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through April 26, 2015
by Bernadette Johnson

One needn’t be an accomplished musician or even an aficionado of classical music to be fully enraptured by the virtuosity of Mona Golabek, the sole performer in this musical recounting of the life of Lisa Jura, one of three daughters in a middle-class Jewish family in wartime Vienna.

Golabek is not an actress, but she has taken to the stage to recount a story that is near and dear to her—that of her mother’s painful separation from her family via the Kindertransport, a World War II program to relocate Jewish children, unaccompanied, to the relative safety of England, where they were placed with relatives, host families or in group homes.

No, Golabek is not an actress (a drawback at times, since words are lost due to her soft-spokenness), but rather an expressive storyteller who uses great music—Grieg, Mozart, Debussy, Chopin, Beethoven et al.—to convey the heartbreak of separation, the pathos, the joy, the drama, as well as the conviction, that defined Jura’s life journey.

“Hold on to your music. It will be your best friend,” Jura’s mother told her, and Jura shared the power of these words in the piano lessons she passed on to her own daughter, sharing the dreams and the hopes that sustained her despite the fears and the hardships.

With the help of a Steinway concert grand, Golabek seamlessly pieces together the narrative and music of her mother’s life.

Oversized gilded frames form the backdrop to a simple set consisting of gold-trimmed black steps and platforms that Golabek ascends and descends as she addresses the audience. These frames become screens on which Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal have skillfully projected historical scenes that underscore the narrative. Unfortunately, the projections are less clear from the back rows of the theatre.

The best vantage point for fully appreciating Gobalek’s piano renditions is definitely house center, where one can watch her fingers as they fly over the keys.