Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Pianist of Willesden Lane at 59E59 Theaters

Mona Golabek in THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Lisa Jura, a Jewish child prodigy, had two dreams: (1) to debut at the Vienna Musikverin playing the Grieg piano concerto and (2) to have a daughter of her own someday and teach her to play the piano, just as her mother, Malka, had taught her.  Lisa never quite realized her first dream but she certainly came close: she didn’t debut at the Vienna Musikvering but did debut at London’s Wigmore Hall – and did it playing Grieg’s concerto.  And her second dream, surely the more important of the two, was fully realized: she bore a daughter, Mona, who she not only taught to play the piano but who went on to become an exceptionally accomplished professional pianist herself.

In 1938, when Lisa was just fourteen years old, her parents, Abraham and Malka, arranged for her to evade the Nazis by traveling from Vienna to London via the Kindertransport (the children’s train) - which explains why she debuted in London rather than in Vienna.  In London, separated from her parents, her sisters, and her friends, Lisa had a tough time, being handed off from one guardian to another.  But she was fortunate in being cared for and befriended by other compassionate adults and she never abandoned her musical dreams, ultimately winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music which led to her debut at Wigmore Hall.
Several years later, after World War II had ended, Lisa managed to emigrate to the United States, where her daughter, Mona, was born.  And many years after that, in 2003, Mona (together with Lee Cohen) wrote The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival as a testimonial to her mother’s extraordinary life.  Subsequently, that book was adapted by Hershey Felder into the play The Pianist of Willesden Lane, currently enjoying its New York premiere at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan, directed by Hershey Felder and starring Mona Golabek both as herself and as her mother, Lisa.

This is a wonderfully evocative production.  Ms Golabek is not simply a very talented pianist but is also a charming story teller to boot.  Her virtuoso piano performances range from Bach and Beethoven to Grieg, Chopin, Debussy and Rachmaninoff, with a bit of Gershwin thrown in as icing on the cake.  And the musical performances are vastly enriched by Ms Golabek’s accompanying commentary on her mother’s life.

This play is especially timely today.  Ms Golabek’s final words to her audience are these:

“It will always be through the music that I pay tribute to my mother’s life, to the grandparents I never knew, and to every mother and father who had the courage to save their child by saying goodbye.”

In those few words, Ms Golabek makes crystal clear the sacrifice that all parents, whatever their backgrounds, have made for their children since time immemorial.  Italian parents, Irish fathers, Jewish mothers from Russia and Eastern Europe, Asian parents – all have sent their children to America with tears in their eyes and hope in their hearts.  Today it is Central American parents whose children are massed on the southern border of the United States in one of the major humanitarian crises of our time.  And whatever your politics, whether you believe that America’s highest immigration priority should be to secure our borders or whether you believe it should first address the issue of providing a path to citizenship for those illegal aliens who already are here, few would deny that a compassionate concern for the children arriving here in droves must trump all other considerations.

Indeed, the only exception I can think of to such universal parental love is that being evidenced today by Palestinian parents toward their own children to whom they say goodbye after cloaking them in explosive vests and utilizing them as human shields in playgrounds and school yards, on beaches and rooftops, in furtherance of their own political and religious agendas.  It is a monstrous distortion of the normal bond between parents and children and it is well past time for the entire civilized world to take a stand against it.