The piano has always been a sanctuary for Mona Golabek.
It was the piano that gave her mother, Lisa Jura, hope as a girl fleeing the terror of the Nazis at the onset of World War II. It was the piano that became her mother's home when she was so far away from her family, a Viennese refugee in Britain. It was the piano that calmed her spirit when she played during the London blitz to drown out the sound of the bombs. That is when she truly became "The Pianist of Willesden Lane."
Golabek pays tribute to her mother -- to her courage and her music -- in this elegant one-woman show. A poignant 90-minute piece made lush by virtuosic piano playing, this haunting memoir runs through Dec. 8 in its regional premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Adapted and directed by Hershey Felder ("George Gershwin Alone"), "Pianist" strikes a deep chord because it uses the power of music to reveal the fragility of humanity. Based on a book by Golabek and Lee Cohen, it's a deeply moving elegy for a family struggling to hold onto what they value amid the chaos of war.
Lisa Jura was only 14 when her childhood was shattered by the persecution of the Jews. The life she had known as a musical prodigy, blooming amid the splendor of Viennese culture, the civilized milieu of cafes and concert halls, vanished almost overnight.
It started small. Her piano teacher was forbidden to give her lessons. A trolley stop was no longer named after Mahler. She could still shake off her unease by hiding in her sheet music.
Then came the horror of Kristallnacht. She watched her father, a tailor, beaten by soldiers. She remembers his shame at being forced to stand naked in the streets.
In the wake of that dark night, her father realized that the only way to keep his daughter safe was to send her away. While her mother couldn't bear to part with her, to separate her from her sisters, her father understood that this was a do-or-die moment. In the end, her parents made the only choice they could. They let her go.
She became one of the lucky few, narrowly escaping the devastation of the Holocaust. One of almost 10,000 Jewish children rescued by Kindertransport, Jura flourished in England, growing up and becoming an artist, while much of her family perished at the hands of the Nazis. She didn't learn the fate of her sisters, who could not get tickets on the transport, until much later.
Framed by a shifting tapestry of archival footage, Golabek channels her mother from childhood to adulthood as she toils in a factory, befriends other war orphans and comes to the grim realization that she may never see her loved ones again.
Throughout it all, the grand piano is her oasis, the keyboard her salvation.
While Golabek may not be an accomplished enough actress to sculpt some of the play's most harrowing moments in all their nuance, there's no denying the intensity of her narrative, the ache of her family legacy. To be sure, she's got an endearing, matter-of-fact air that belies the tragedy of her tale. And her mastery as a musician lends to the emotional ferocity of the play, its depth and sweep.
As she sits at the Steinway, communing with the mysteries of Bach and Debussy, history turns into a symphony.
Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Follow her at www.twitter.com/KarenDSouza4.
"The Pianist of
Adapted from the book "The Children of Willesden Lane" by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen, performed by Golabek
Through: Dec. 8
Where: Thrust Stage,
Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison St.