BOSTON — Does a work about the Holocaust have to be remarkable at this point? I’ve tended to think so. The Nazis are such a long-standing symbol of evil and the European Jews the symbol of innocence and victimization that I want contemporary art to go deeper, to ask what we would have done if we had been ordinary Jews or Germans in that time and place. Or what should our reaction to evil be today.
Mona Golabek’s one-woman “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” (at the Paramount Center black box through Dec. 16) is not a remarkable work (unlike Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist”). The story of a young girl, Golabek’s mother, whose parents sent her away on the kindertransport to England as things got tense in Austria has been told before, more or less. Golabek is neither a great pianist nor a great actress. She’s a bit stiff and formal when it comes to both.
Here’s what I mean:
On the other hand, maybe the sheer unremarkability of the work is the reason that it’s quietly affecting. Her mother, Lisa Jura, was chosen from among the three sisters to leave after her father won enough money gambling to send only one away. Jura’s loving parents had something of a Sophie’s Choice and decided that it would be a way for her to continue her piano lessons while they raised money for the rest of them to go.
Jura eventually wound up in a hostel in Willesden Lane and her determination to excel at the piano while hoping for good news from Vienna is the crux of the story. In between are snippets of Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy — and that Grieg piano concerto. This is a piece I haven’t been able to take seriously since seeing Sid Caesar destroy it half a century ago, but that’s a story for another day.
This story is much more serious, though it’s often also too mundane to keep the dramatic arc moving forward. Fortunatelh, it’s helped by the staging. ArtsEmerson is presenting the play along with director Hershey Felder, who adapted Golabek’s book, “The Children of Willesden Lane.” Felder did a fine job as Leonard Bernstein last year and George Gershwin at the American Repertory Theatre years earlier. He knows how to use stagecraft and the scenic design of David A. Buess and Trevor Hay fill the gilded frames with an imaginative montage of photos, portraits and film.
In the end, Golabek’s – and Jura’s – message about bearing witness through music is a strong one. If Jura hadn’t excelled at music she would have betrayed her parents’ vision. Golabek’s work is a way of propelling that vision forward, as is her Hold On To Your Music Foundation, inspired by her mother’s words to her as she left Vienna.
“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” is also a way of reclaiming Beethoven and the Viennese masters from the Nazis who co-opted their music.
Even if this isn’t a great work, that’s a pretty great accomplishment.