Willesden Lane 2013

I’d give it 4 1/2 stars. Critics say “don’t miss it if you can.” And so on. It’s been a good year. Yes, some imperfections. But I am a very lucky person. Let us count the ways. No, let’s not. Let’s just appreciate them.

Splendid to more or less end the year at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” hit so many notes…forget the pun…that I’m still pleasantly confused.

But is it art? Something like this question occurs to me. Which is quickly superseded by another. Which is…why would human beings waste time with such a silly conjecture? It is wonderful. That’s what it is.

It is a solo performance piece. A woman tells the real story of her mother. It’s a tale of Holocaust survival and loss. And how dreams and music save us. In an extreme nutshell, that’s it.

Mona Golabek is a musician, not an actor. Yet in this show she is both. She has ample presence in both capacities, is never overbearing in either. We never get the sense of witnessing show business or concert stardom. She is there in the right amount. And what amount is that? Well, it’s the right amount to sell out the show and extend its run by several weeks. The right amount….

…to give us the sense of something shared.

Escaped from Austria in the Kindertransport, a 15-year-old girl finds herself in a hostel in northwest London. She can play the piano. And she can play it well. And in the development of this information, we can see how choices…call them artistic choices…matter.

In her years in Willesden, it is the hostel that matters. The residents, their names and affections, move downstage with Mona. The Austrian girl’s musical skill holds a similar place. Her accomplishment matters less than clusters of people who gather when she plays…in a country house of refugees, in a war-torn London neighborhood. Again, it is not the adulation of the audiences, but their spontaneity, the collective need to be lifted above the grinding sounds of life and war.

Golabek’s narrative carries the story. It is a spare script, with occasional projections of period scenes in the background. The latter providing just enough to ground us in another time…in which recorded music was still a rarity, electronics an unknown. And in a brilliant stroke, an evocation of a time when live a concert gathering was rare and dangerous, Golabek takes us inside the empty, fortified National Gallery at Trafalgar Square. We attend a piano recital with Dame Myra Hess…a wartime concert legend.

For contemporary audiences, particularly American ones, the road to success at the Royal Academy of Music could threaten the story. But this is no rags-to-concert-riches narrative like the 1996 “Shine” with Geoffrey Rush. Instead, the real success is Mona Golabek herself. Watching her, I kept thinking that it was marvelous, even miraculous, that she had escaped the postwar materialism of Los Angeles to be who she is.

And Willesden Lane, one of those slightly down at heel and chronically unfashionable London neighborhoods, is no mystery to me. And I grew up with tales of the Holocaust, survival and victimhood. To this day, I see London from a somewhat German Jewish perspective. Wholly acquired, of course, but unshakable.

So what of 2013? Marriage. House. Even apartment management. And it all adds up to a small theater in Berkeley. Someone telling their personal story, heartfelt and straightforward. There must be more. But this will do. We all need stories, real ones. Ones that unfold. And that they unfold at all seems a miracle.

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