Performing a biographical show is an easier task when the connection between actor and character is personal.
In The Pianist of Willesden Lane, which is playing at the Segal Centre in Montreal until Sept. 29, star Mona Golabek has an advantage, since it is her mother, Lisa Jura, that she’s portraying.
But there is nothing easy about it. First of all, Golabek is not an actor, yet she acquits herself admirably. A pianist by profession, she also has to meet the challenge of periodically narrating, while simultaneously playing complicated classical pieces. She does both with aplomb, as well as passion, and the audience is captivated by the story.
Just as Golabek doesn’t let obstacles stop her, her mother showed the same pluck and courage when, in 1938, at age 14, she was shipped from Vienna to England, with the life-saving Kindertransport.
Torn from the arms of her family, she nevertheless went on to fulfill her dream of becoming a concert pianist.
How Jura achieved her goal reflects her own perseverance and the support she received from the people who helped her along the way, each of whom Golabek portrays with different voices and mannerisms.
It was director Hershey Felder, a Montreal native, who suggested that Golabek perform his theatrical adaptation of the book, The Children of Willesden Lane, which Golabek wrote with Lee Cohen to honour her mother.
The book, now in its 24th printing, is a staple of Holocaust education internationally, and the play has been touring since 2012, spreading the message of how important it is to realize one’s aspirations in the face of adversity.
The storyline is coherent and told with such fluidity that one feels as though he or she is immersed in the pages of the original book, with the added treat of hearing Golabek perform the masterpieces of great composers like Edvard Grieg, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Alexander Scriabin and Sergei Rachmaninoff.
Each musical sequence is carefully matched to the mood of the text and interpreted to convey the character’s emotions. Both music connoisseurs and the uninitiated will be enchanted, as Golabek’s fingers fly over the keys in an amazing display of dexterity, with a full complement of soulful intensity.
The performer is a gentle storyteller with lovely diction and when she raises her voice, it is through the piano, which acts as an extension of her character’s angst. The thundering of the instrument embodies, for example, the violence of the bombing of London during the war, while its soothing notes cushion her character in times of fear and stress.
In this, Golabek demonstrates how music is a language and a solace for the human race.
The set design by Felder and Trevor Hay is a series of gilded frames that host projections of historical films and photos, including heartrending documentary footage of Jews being rounded up and mistreated in Vienna.
Sound designer Erik Carstensen is the only production member who disappoints. Golabek sometimes plays in sequence with an ear-grating and tinny recorded orchestral accompaniment that only distracts from, and downgrades, her superb sound on the live instrument.
The play runs for 90 minutes without intermission, a feat for the actor-pianist who elicits a well-deserved standing ovation by the end.
Don’t be in a rush to leave because Golabek provides the audience with a minute or two of postscripts after the play that bring the story into the present day. One of them is the touching background of something she wears each time she performs. Another is the fate, sad and happy, of her dear ones.
For tickets, call 514-739-7944, or go to segalcentre.org.