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Pianist 2Bach, Grieg and World War II would seem to  make an odd trio if you went no further than scanning the program notes for The Pianist of Willesden Lane, now being presented at the Berkeley Rep after sold out shows in Chicago,  Los Angeles and Boston. On an inauspicious dark thrust-stage is a grand piano and some large oval frames on the back wall.  The theater goes dark and as the lights come up a single actress, dressed in black, rather ordinary in appearance, begins addressing the audience.  In measured tones we hear of a childhood love of piano bestowed by her Jewish mother in Vienna, in the early 1930s.  And then, in 1938, at the end of a fateful street car ride, of her teacher telling her, with great anxiety, that he can not teach her anymore.  It is forbidden to teach Jews.  If she doesn’t leave immediately his life is in danger. 

We’ve been prepared somewhat for this by a timeline of Hitler’s rise in Germany and events in wartime England included in the program book.  But as Mona Golabeck alternately sits at the piano to play Grieg’s Piano Concerto or Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, or Chopin and takes on the persona of Lisa Jura. the bare stage and solo performance take on a singular magic. 

Her father in Vienna excitedly says he obtained one ticket for the kindertransport train.  There are three girls in the family.  In the first demonstration of a fine range of voices Golabeck becomes father and appalled mother.  A relative in England turns the 15 year old  away.  She is placed in an over crowded boarding house for non-British war refugees.  She works as a seamstress in a uniform shop and as best she can becomes her own piano teacher. 

It’s a tale of privation and sorrow — letters to her sisters and parents go unanswered– and the kindness of strangers, all marvelously told.  She finds a teacher, makes her public debut with Grieg’s Piano Concerto, even as her mother, and she, had dreamed.  She even finds love.   The pieces she plays take on particular resonance for the events and moods she is describing.  In the audience we hear, even in familiar pieces, unsuspected emotional tones.  Even the exacting music critic Robert Hurwitt, of the San Francisco Chronicle, hears in the Grieg piece what he has not heard before.

I remarked midway to my companion what a great combination of acting and musical talent the director, Hershey Felder,  had found.  Indeed.  It turns out that the actress, Mona Golabek, is Jura’s actual daughter, which she reveals to us at the end of the play, and a concert pianist in her own right.  The piece is her creation and homage to her mother and grandmother, who she never knew, both pianists before her.  Originally she told her mother’s story  in a young adult book, The Children of Willesden Lane.  The play, and music followed, engaging her multiple talents and adding to them.

It’s quite a wonderful evening, for many reasons, not the least of which is the way we come to understand her grandmother’s last words to her mother as she leaves for England:  “Hold on to your music. It will be your best friend.”