If anyone believes in the healing and redemptive properties of music, it is pianist Mona Golabek. Her new play, “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” traces the harrowing story of her mother’s escape from the Nazis on the Kindertransport and the rebuilding of her life in London, on the way to a concert music career. It opened last week in Midtown; Charles Isherwood of The New York Times calls it “deeply affecting,” noting that the play is “packed with startling setbacks … and equally dramatic triumphs.”
Adapted and directed by Hershey Felder, whose own one-man show “Maestro” (a tribute to Leonard Bernstein) ran two weeks ago at Town Hall, “Pianist” is based on Golabek’s nonfiction book, “The Children of Willesden Lane,” written with Lee Cohen. Golabek’s mother, Lisa Jura, who was a child prodigy, was the only one of their three children that her parents could afford to send on the train out of Vienna.
Jura ended up living in a hostel on Willesden Lane in North London, along with more than two dozen other Jewish children. After the war, she met her husband, a French resistance fighter, at a concert that she gave in Paris. The couple immigrated to New York, and then moved to Los Angeles, where Golabek and her sister, with whom she performed for many years, were born.
In an interview, Golabek told The Jewish Week that the play’s overarching theme is about “finding your passion that will sustain you through the darkest of times.” Her mother survived the London Blitz by going to the basement of the youth hostel and “pounding out notes on the piano as the bombs exploded.” Throughout the play, Golabek performs classical pieces ranging from Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata to Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C sharp minor. The play’s structure is based on that of the Grieg Piano Concerto, which her mother played at her Paris debut.
Golabek recently appeared in Birmingham, Ala., where a citywide reading of her book took place among middle and high school students. This fall, she will perform for 10,000 students in Los Angeles, and she has been invited to make a similar visit to Chicago. “The students really embrace the themes of passion, justice and perseverance,” Golabek reflected. “Music is an invisible arrow that pierces our hearts. The play shows how your heart can be broken and put back together again, although always still showing the lines where it was cracked.”
“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” runs through Sunday, Aug. 24 at 59E59 Theatres, 59 E. 59th St. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. For tickets, $70, call TicketCentral at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org.