World War II is filled with sagas of survival, hope, heroism and shock. Concert pianist Mona Golabek is currently telling one such story about her mother, Lisa Jura, in The Pianist of Willesden Lane at the Royal George Theatre in Chicago. The one-woman play illuminates how Jura’s dream of becoming a concert pianist gave her hope and inner strength during difficult times. The fact Golabek is Jura’s daughter makes this true story a unique theatrical experience.
The Pianist of Willesden Lane begins in 1938 Vienna during the early stages of World War II. Fourteen-year-old Jura, a young Jewish girl, has a single dream – to make her concert debut performing Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto at the Musikverein Concert Hall. Hoping Jura would continue her piano lessons, her parents make the heartbreaking decision to send her away on the Kindertransport, the transportation system that saved many Jewish children by evacuating them to London. Upon her arrival, the young girl realizes her initial refugee home is unable to take her in.
Next, Jura is placed in a manor where she is prohibited to play the piano because it was only for decoration. Because of her drive to continue playing the piano, she leaves the manor. Eventually, Jura ends up at a home on Willesden Lane with other Jewish child refugees, where she is able to continue to practice the piano on her own. Without giving the entire story away, Jura survives, marries and has a daughter, Mona.
Despite the emotional gravity and personal connection to the story, Golabek successfully keeps her composure and objectivity. Her acting is subtle and charming. Golabek’s true talent as a concert pianist is woven throughout the narrative as she performs music her mother played at that time. She performs works by Grieg, Debussy, Beethoven, Bach and Rachmaninoff while telling the story; no easy feat.
All-in-all, the ninety-minute show left the audience feeling reverence for Golabek, stirring a standing ovation at the end. Based on the reaction, it’s not surprising the The Pianist of Willesden Lane is extended until August 4.