Mona Golabek stars with aplomb in the one-woman play, “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” now running at Theater J, adapted and directed by Hershey Felder. Lisa Jura was a prodigy pianist who dreamed of one day making her concert debut in her hometown of Vienna with her favorite piece, the Grieg Piano Concerto. She also longed to one day have a daughter who she would teach to play piano. Mona Golabek is that daughter, and brings her mother’s true story to life, both on the piano and in spoken word, in a performance brimming with empathy and overflowing with emotion.
… a gut-wrenching, soulful, seasoned performance…
Based on the book “The Children of Willesden Lane” by Golabek and co-author Lee Cohen, the play depicts Lisa Jura’s life as a child refugee during World War II. Jura was saved from the Holocaust by the Kindertransport, the British social program that successfully relocated 10,000 Jewish children from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia to safety in England. Golabek plays at least a dozen roles throughout her 90-minute performance, from Jura’s mother and father, to her beloved piano teacher (complete with his adorably out-of-tune singing), to social workers, foster hosts, and friends—and she does all of this while playing the piano!
It’s one thing to speak lines while playing a simple ditty on the piano, but it’s quite another to act out lines with intense passion, staying in character the whole time, all while playing the incredibly difficult Grieg Piano Concerto. Yet Golabek makes it look easy. Her piano performances seamlessly weave in and out of her narrative, bringing pathos, determination, heartbreak, and unquenchable beauty to life amidst the story of her deeply personal connection to the Holocaust.
Theater J became a sacred space on Wednesday night. Barely a breath could be heard from the audience for the entire performance. It felt as though a protective bubble had descended, consecrating the moments as we all lived and breathed together the life and spirit of Lisa Jura. We witnessed her intense longing to play piano again after her emigration to England, and watched her practice silently over forbidden keys in the night. We worried for her as she snuck into the basement of her group home so she could play piano instead of taking refuge in the bomb shelter during the London air raids.
We shared Lisa’s excitement over Aaron, her first crush, as well as her desperate, fading hope as she read list after list of concentration camp survivors, willing her parents’ names to appear. I believe the moment when she announced their deaths pierced every heart in the audience, just as our collective joy that her sisters had survived buoyed up our spirits. Lisa’s eventual concert debut should have been the grandest moment of her life, and yet it was terribly bittersweet, as she had to perform with only her memories of her parents in attendance, instead of seeing them in the front row. Golabek’s closing performance of the Grieg concerto is both dignified and pain-stricken, as she, too, now plays with and for the memory of her own mother, just as Lisa once did on a London stage. The connections between past and present felt profound.
Mona Golabek is a simply stunning pianist and actor alike. She plays the piano with nuanced tenderness, bringing a thoughtful, deliberate approach to pieces that are often wildly and ferociously attacked by other professional pianists. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the Grieg Piano Concerto played as a crashing cacophony of furiously hurried notes, so Golabek’s gentle, pensive, and sometimes humorous interpretation was a true delight. She brought the same quiet restraint to Rachmaninoff’s famous Prelude in C-sharp minor, not overdoing the large chords as so many will, but instead finding the subdued, haunting energy hiding underneath the rich tapestry of notes on the page. The Rachmaninoff was paired with vintage video of the D-Day invasion projected behind her as she played, and the sense of grim dread that filled the theater was palpable as music and history fused together in perfect harmony. I would love to one day hear Golabek in a solo piano recital so that I could enjoy even more of her sophisticated musicality.
Mona Golabek in “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” delivers a gut-wrenching, soulful, seasoned performance on every level. I highly recommend that everyone makes it a priority to attend the production this December. Golabek brings a power to the story of Lisa Jura that only she, as her daughter, could deliver, and you will surely be inspired. I suspect that you will leave the theater considering what legacy you wish to create in your own life to leave behind for your loved ones. May all our memories one day be a blessing, as Lisa’s unquestionably is.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: Recommended for third-grade and above due to thematic content about the Holocaust.
“The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” runs through December 18, 2022 at Theater J, 1529 16th Street NW, Washington, DC 20036. Tickets are available by calling the ticket office at 202-777-3210, 1-5 pm, Monday-Friday, and one hour prior to performance. You can also purchase tickets online. Safety Guidelines: All patrons in the Goldman Theater are required to wear masks covering their nose and mouth. Masks are optional but encouraged in the Q Street and 16th Street lobbies, hallways, and other public spaces.