Hands. How easily we take them for granted. They are first and foremost utilitarian. But do not underestimate them. In a New York Minute they can transform into instruments of magic.
Such is the case in The Pianist of Willesden Lane. Mona Golabek is not an actor by any stretch of the imagination. Nor is she a she a gifted storyteller, sorry to say. What she does have is an astonishing story to tell as well as a passion for sharing the life-saving gift of classical music. Golabek is also smart – she wisely chooses the most iconic pieces so that those of us not familiar with Classical music’s many intricacies can hear this tale of dedication and courage without being distracted.
Lisa Jura, Golabek’s mother, was born in Vienna in 1924. Her journey from there to becoming a United States Citizen is the subject of this story. Through Jura we are taken into the back kitchen of WWII. Through Jura we focus, not on battlefields and soldiers but on the life of a teenager who learns to fend for herself. It is an extraordinary story.
In 1938 Vienna, Jura is on the bus going to her most important appointment of the week. She is on her way to her piano lessen with Professor Isselis who delivers the very sad news that, because of a new ordinance that forbids the teaching of Jewish children he must terminate Jura as a student. Effective immediately. There is no discussion. No explanation. No fond farewells. Just an immediate hello and goodbye. The 14 year old Jura is shattered, and for the first time she notices the soldiers and their armbands.
For a time her mother takes over the lessons, sharing fascinating secrets about creating a beautiful chord – the secret is layers. Ultimately November 9 arrives. It is the night of Cristalnacht when Hell is visited on the Jewish owned businesses. Mr. Jura’s tailor shop is ransacked, but he manages to escape with one treasure: a single ticket for the Kindertransport that was taking Jewish children to live in England for safety. The thought of separating the family by choosing one daughter of three to go is too overwhelming. Jura turns to her piano for solace, and when the others heard her play that night, they realized that she had to be the one to go.
She left that night and remembers her mother’s final words – to always hold on to the music, and that her mother would be with her every step of the way. Jura left with her music and a picture of her mother, and never saw her parents again.
In England the cousin to whom she was being sent turned out to have no room for her, so Jura was sent to Bloomsbury House, a sort of clearing station for the children. From there she was sent to a manor house where she spent six months playing without pressure on the keys until one night she could stand it no longer. Her playing drew the attention of the head housekeeper with a threat of banishment if Jura touched the piano ever again. Deciding that living with a piano that she could not touch was out of the question this 15 year old girl biked back to Brighton Station, bought a ticket to London and presented herself once again at Bloomsbury House.
This time she was sent to a sort of hostel on Willesden Lane. It was here her life changed once again, and this time for the better. As well as a wonderful caretaker, Mrs. Cohen, the house also sported a piano that Jura was not only allowed to touch but was encouraged.
The next few years were filled with life as a war seamstress, tales of the blackout, love, and always the piano. Eventually, through Mrs. Cohen’s interest and support, Jura applied to the London Royal Academy of Music. Her fellow lodgers at Willesden Lane became her coaches – timekeepers, surprise quizzes, drill sergeants. After the briefest of auditions she was accepted, and for the first time in four years had herself another instructor.
There followed the debut on scholarship (that she always envisioned) as well as romance and marriage to a French soldier she met while entertaining the soldiers at the Howard hotel, and a reunion with her sisters. Some ears later, another dream came true. Jurga gave birth to Golabek and taught her to become the concert pianist who is telling the tale.
Golabek has a wonderful ability to talk while she is playing, and the effect is nearly dizzying. It is in these moments (as opposed to the times when she leaves the piano to step downstage and speak to us) that she is her most relaxed and warm. The anecdotes and bits of the tale are delivered over the msic with ease and grace.
In the end, while half of the audience is snuffling and weeping, she thanks her mother and grandparents and salutes every mother and father who had the courage to save their child by saying goodbye. She sits again at the piano and plays the Grieg Concerto in A Minor that her own mother played nearly 50 years ago at her London debut. It is a deeply moving scene. When playing the piano Golabek is transcendent.
As I said – this is an astonishing story of a girl who figured out how to survive by hanging on to the music that she loved. Why Ms. Golabek chose to portray her mother instead of telling us the story as herself is a mystery. She puts a tremendous amount of pressure on a skill that is not nearly as developed as her piano playing. When stacked up agains her superb musicianship, her limitations as an actor weaken the entire production. This is compounded by the uneven accents and cumbersome blocking. Ms. Golabek has a lot to overcome and is at an unfair disadvantage.
But, in the end, the story of Lisa Jura makes it through just as she herself did – unscathed and in tact.
THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE – Based n the book The Children of Willesden Lane by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen, Adapted and Directed by Hershey Felder. THE
THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE launches the inaugural 5A Season at 59E59 Theaters (Elysabeth Kleinhans, Artistic Director; Peter Tear, Executive Director) (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues). It is produced by Geffen Playhouse, in association with Eighty-Eight Entertainment and Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE begins performances on Friday, July 11 for a limited engagement through Sunday, August 24. The performance schedule is Tuesday – Thursday at 7 PM; Friday at 8 PM; Saturday at 2 PM & 8 PM; Sunday at 3 PM & 7 PM. Single tickets are $70 ($49 for 59E59 Members). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org.