The Refuge of Art: The Pianist of Willesden Lane

I've been stunned wordless by this Portland Center Stage show, thinking for days about artists and heroes, miracles and music, and the courage to rise above unfathomable cruelty.

When Mona Golabek stepped onto the Main Stage looking ordinary in her sensible shoes and black skirt with a pucker at the back zipper, I was unfazed. Her attire was nondescript (read: frumpy), and she was brown-haired and middle aged (read: just like me), playing the part of a simple Viennese girl. How was she going to hold her audience with this one-person show?

I could never have imagined that in the span of ninety minutes I would be spellbound, moved to tears, burning to dance, and awed into hero worship.

Mona Golabek is not only a performer, musician, writer, and actor, she is heiress to a legacy of courage.

Golabek brings to life the character of Lisa Jura, her own mother, the Holocaust survivor and inspiration behind the story, doing so while performing concerto after concerto. Golabek crafts a wonderful human experience, flowing from story to song and back again.

I know little about classical music. I recognize the works but can't match composers with titles. As I watched, I felt lazy-minded and undisciplined in light of the story of this young pianist whose knowledge, dedication, and hard work were phenomenal.

Because practice is key. In order to create art that changes the world, we have to be willing to dedicate ourselves to the hard work, the boring stuff, the tedious parts. We have to see beyond the day-to-day exercises into a world that may be.

In the case of Lisa Jura, her world was falling apart. Though she practiced with extreme care every day, the Nazi regime invaded her beloved city and denied her the right to continue piano lessons.

Yet her commitment to music opened a door to ride the Kindertransport, the railway that operated for less than a year, rescuing 10,000 children from Nazi-occupied territory. We glimpse the horrors of this time in footage shown on the ingeniously-designed screens, set in ornate frames as portraits on a wall.

The images wreck your heart.

Lisa Jura plays piano, note after note, night after night, using every available resource to keep her skill alive while making her temporary home in a London hostel. When bombs crash all around, the others flee to the bomb shelter. Lisa stays at the keys.

"I couldn't listen anymore," says Lisa at the piano, "so I escaped to the only safe place that I knew."

In the end, what we take away from art is not how perfectly we have honed our craft. Art itself becomes a refuge for us.

And Claire de Lune steps lightly, trilling, haunting and holding us, too. The Pianist of Willesden Lane takes us all to this place of safety.

Photo credits: Patrick Weishampel

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