On the stage are one woman and one piano. The backdrop is four large empty frames within a broken gilded frame. Together these components tell a story of haunting beauty and power in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s “The Pianist of Willesden Lane.”
As different images appear, magic mirror style, in the frames, Mona Golabek, a gifted piano virtuoso, tells the true story, in words and music, of her mother, Lisa Jura. It opens in Vienna in 1938 when Lisa, a 14-year-old piano student, wishes for nothing more than to make her debut playing Edvard Grieg’s “Piano Concert in A Minor” in that most musical of cities.
1938 is also the year that Hitler invades and occupies Austria in his deadly anschluss, and Lisa gets her first impression of what this will mean for her, a Jew, when her piano teachers tells her it is forbidden, now, to teach Jews. Her lessons must end.
She carries on her studies with her mother, also a pianist, until Nov. 9, the night that became known as “Kristallnacht,” or the Night of Broken Glass, the organized beating and murder of Jewish men, women and children, and destruction of Jewish businesses and homes by the Nazis. In Vienna, her own father is caught and beaten by Nazi mobs.
In the wake of this violence, Jewish and Quaker groups in Britain organized to help pass a bill through Parliament that would allow 10,000 Jewish children into England. The first Kindertransport train left Germany on Dec. 1, 1938, with 206 children making a 24-hour journey to safety.
When Lisa’s father gambles and wins one of the priceless tickets for the Kindertransport, her parents have to decide which among their three daughters they will send, and choose Lisa, who seems to have a special strength she derives from her music. She leaves, expecting that her family will join her in England within weeks. Her mother’s parting words are to remember her music. Lisa never sees her mother or her father again.
Golabek recounts the stories her mother told her, of arriving in England and eventually making her way to a hostel on Willesden Lane in London. Lisa Jura came of age, playing piano through the Blitz, Dunkirk, and D-Day invasion, and then, almost as if when words don’t have the power to express what is happening — when letters stop arriving from Vienna, when the hostel is bombed and destroyed — Golabek sits down at the piano and plays the music her mother taught her — Beethoven, Debussy, Chopin, Bach, Rachmaninoff — and Grieg. (She also played Gershwin for the troops.)
The result is a spellbinder that, at its conclusion, had the audience on its feet, many in tears and all roaring with applause. As a result, Berkeley Rep extended the run of “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” through Jan. 5. A tale of the Holocaust at the holidays seems, on the surface, an unlikely pairing, but in this case, the spirit and the triumph of Lisa Jura’s story and the continuity that her daughter is here to tell it, put it at the top of my list this season.
Piano lessons with her mother, Golabek notes, were also “lessons in life. They were filled with stories of a hostel in London and the people she knew there. Her stories were our folklore, bursting with bits and pieces of wonderful characters who bonded over her music. Sitting at the piano as a child, I would close my eyes and listen to her lilting voice and imagine her world. She always believed that “each piece of music tells a story.” Her legacy has inspired my music and my life. I pass along her story in the hope that it may enrich the passion and music that lie in each of us.”
“The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” is directed by Hershey Felder and based on “The Children of Willesden Lane,” by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen. For more information and tickets visit BerkeleyRep.org or call 510-647-2949.