Posted on January 31, 2024
Acclaimed pianist Mona Golabek is the daughter of Viennese pianist Lisa Jura, whose life was thrown into turmoil in the late 1930s by the spread of fascism in Europe. Golabek has kept her mother’s legacy alive by recounting her story — first in a book called The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival, then by starring in the book’s celebrated theatrical adaptation, The Pianist of Willesden Lane, presented by Ensemble Theatre Company February 1-18.
“When I was a little kid, my mom taught me the piano,” says Golabek. “In these piano lessons, she told me the story of her life … with all of these interesting characters, the music came so alive.” Golabek developed and performed a nascent version of the stage production, which caught the attention of theater artist/pianist Hershey Felder. No stranger to a single-performer, biographical theater piece (Felder is known for similar shows about musicians like George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein), Felder adapted Golabek’s story for the stage. The production (also directed by Felder) began its life cycle at the Geffen Playhouse in 2012 and has since traveled all over the world.
In Felder’s rendition, Jura’s story is told in the first person. “Hershey challenged me to become my mother,” says Golabek. “He told me to go buy a red wig, and I thought he was crazy. But I did it … I came to understand the absolute beauty of what he was trying to do here. To inhabit her spirit and her soul.”
In the show, Jura (played by Golabek) is a refugee who never gives up on her dream of becoming a pianist. The various piano pieces Golabek plays throughout the story offer dramatic sensory texture to her mother’s courageous narrative. This tapestry of music and memory brings our shared history to life on stage at the New Vic.
The Pianist of Willesden Lane, an Ensemble Theatre Company production, is on view at the New Vic (33 W. Victoria St.) February 1-18. For more information and tickets, see etcsb.org.