Elegant Storytelling Shines in 'The Pianist of Willesden Lane' at Cleveland Play House

Simplicity is powerful. 

For proof, you need look no farther than this one-woman show now at the Cleveland Play House. Mona Golabek, an accomplished concert pianist, tells the story of her mother Lisa Jura, who at age 14 escaped Nazi Germany in 1938, leaving behind her parents and two sisters.

This show, which is touring many cities, is a tight and captivating package highlighted by Golabek’s entrancing talents at the keyboard of her Steinway grand piano. The piano is not only the key set piece on the mostly black stage, it is absolutely central to Golabek’s life.

As Golabek tells it, in a script adapted from the book she co-authored with Lee Cohen, “The Children of Willesden Lane,” her mother Lisa and her grandmother were also pianists. Once it became clear that the Nazis were coming for all the Jews, Lisa’s parents spent the father’s gambling winnings for a single ticket on a Kindertransport train that eventually led to a safe refuge in England.

Golabek is a better pianist than actor, so she and adaptor/director Hershey Felder wisely choose to tell her heart-wrenching story directly and without any manufactured emotional overtones. Occasionally adopting different character voices, including her mother’s, Golabek charmingly relates her mother’s time in England, returning time and again to the piano where both she and her mother clearly find such comfort.

The span of the show takes Lisa from age 14 to 21, and there are triumphs (a piano scholarship, a romantic connection with a French soldier) and more tragedies along the way. Of course, there is the biggest question of all: What has happened to the rest of Lisa’s family? The answers are forthcoming, and the elegant simplicity of how they are delivered makes them all the more meaningful due to the restraint employed.

The music Golabek plays ranges from “Clair de Lune” to “These Foolish Things,” and they all gather added resonance since they are placed in this remarkable context. Adding immensely to the texture of the performance are photos (of the family, artwork, etc.) and some war footage, projected inside four gilt frames on the back wall.

As Lisa’s mother told her daughter as the young girl boarded the train, “Hold on to the music.” In this show, the music gives everyone in the audience a new and compelling hold on a story that must always be told: how humanity can overcome evil.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane
Through March 22 at the Cleveland Play House, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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