In 2002, Roman Polanski directed a remarkable, Academy Award-winning movie taken from a book by Wladyslaw Szpilman, the Polish piano player and composer who survived the Holocaust.
Mona Golabek's deeply stirring one-woman show at the Royal George Theatre, "The Pianist of Willesden Lane," is thematically similar to that film, in that it follows the life of another Jewish musician who played on through turmoil, adversity and dislocation, relied heavily on the kindness of others and whose art literally saved her life.
But there are a couple of important differences. Golabek is telling the story of her own mother, Lisa Jura, the child of parents who somehow saved their children but perished themselves at the hands of the Nazis. And whereas the music in "The Pianist" mostly was a composite of the hands of Adrien Brody and the recorded playing of Janusz Olejniczak, the piano playing in "The Pianist of Willesden Lane" is all performed live and in person by Golabek, as formidable a pianist as she is a storyteller.
In many ways, the simple act of Golabek sitting down at the Steinway piano that occupies the stage of the Royal George Theatre is a perfect statement of the play's main themes and enough to make your mouth fall open with a certain wonder at the way of the world. In watching this middle-aged woman's hands move in service of the creation of beautiful music, the sacrifices of her grandparents are made manifest. The Nazis succeeded neither in wiping out this family nor its accomplished artistry, here passed down to the next generation. The Nazis are gone. The piano playing goes on. It's all laid out before you in the most immediate, theatrical way.
And you hear a story of remarkable people living through horrors. After a brief introduction, Golabek essentially becomes her mother, talking us through the agonizing day when her parents selected her (out of their three children) for their one ticket on the Kindertransport from Vienna to London, her flourishing in London as a refugee who found love and support, and, of course, her growth as a pianist. Her joys and successes are tempered with the agony of knowing the suffering of her family. From that came an artist, who lived on to make her daughter, this daughter, an artist determined to honor her forebears.
Golabek is first and foremost a pianist rather than an actress. She does morph into some bevy of Dickensian-like characters, although they emerge from her writing (the piece is based on a book of the same title by Golabek and Lee Cohen).
But Golabek is a pianist with the rare kind of family story that fully merits such a telling, replete, as it should be, with the sound of music. There were many ways to make "The Pianist of Willesden Lane" an opportunity for sentimentality, even for bathos. But Golabek, who is produced and directed here by Hershey Felder, does not exploit the pain of her story nor wallow in its more harrowing moments.
There is a matter-of-fact, keep-calm-and-carry-on quality to this story, which only enforces its veracity. It is, in every way, a very classy show.
So it goes, dignified until the last solo. At that point, a look appears in Golabek's eyes, there is a rush of new emotion, and her hands start to fly over the keys, playing not just for herself and not even just for her mother, I suspect, but for all those Jewish pianists who did not make it to Willesden Lane, and, thus, out.
When: Through July 7
Where: Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $44-$49 at 312-988-9000 or theroyalgeorgetheatre.com