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Review: The Pianist of Willesden Lane

Kristina Carroll ’16 & Christopher John Falcioni ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff

Mona Golabek in "The Pianist of Willesden Lane."
Mona Golabek in “The Pianist of Willesden Lane.” Property of ArtsEmerson.

While prime time TV is fascinating, blockbuster movies are engrossing, and video games are epic, there is something about the power of true-life, person-to-person storytelling that the human soul craves. Listening to friends talk to you about their most mundane of days, parents telling “When I Was Your Age” stories, and those stories that always get repeated at reunions large and small offer something different than what any other type of visual storytelling methods can to a story. People telling stories face-to-face can see you, too, and you can really see them, and thus an incredible connection forms between you and the speaker. Though the speaker often doesn’t have any props or special effects to convey their meanings, they use their voice, their memories, and (more often than not) their soul to convey the truths of their lives.

Mona Golabek is lucky enough to have two of these voices, one in her speech and the other in the piano, that weave together intimately and seamlessly, casting a magic spell over the audiences of The Pianist of Willesden Lane. Amidst a beautiful setting of picture frames literally framing the experience and surrounding the piano, Mona tells the story of her mother, Lisa, and her story of how, just before the Holocaust, she was placed on a train with little more than a skill for sewing, a passion for the piano, and a heart that would continue to wish, dream, and persevere through the struggles of World War II. Unlike most examples of modern storytelling, Mona is the only actress on the stage and doesn’t really try to fool anyone as to who she is, the daughter of Lisa, but somehow she transforms into her mother effortlessly, almost to the point where you can’t tell if the show was portraying a biography or an autobiography.

It is a storytelling unlike any other in that she hasn’t just lived the experience nor has she only embodied the spirits of each and every character in her story, but she also plays the experiences on the piano. Knowing that her mother had taught her how to play as a world class musician and hearing the beautiful products of these two women’s labors is nothing short of astounding. The classical pieces that she plays are put into contexts that don’t only feel right, but also further the story along. It is not acting, really, but rather a possession of her mother’s story and what we assume to be the way she told it long ago. It is as if we are looking at Lisa through a panel of glass: while we are separated by a generation, we can nearly see the image completely un-fogged, yet impossible to touch. Just as the music of Mona and her mother, the words, the stories, and the feelings are there, though out of reach and intangible. While this is frustrating for Mona and the audience, it is almost enough to be able to be in Mona’s presence when she tells the story of the children of Willesden Lane and the pianist who wouldn’t give up.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane is on stage at  The Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre at the Paramount Center from now until December 16.

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