There’s a formal, slightly reserved dignity to Mona Golabek’s demeanor through much of “The Pianist of Willesden Lane.’’ Attired in a simple black dress, she speaks earnestly and carefully. Her movements are equally deliberate, precise, and controlled.
And yet we do not feel emotionally distanced from her or from “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,’’ now at ArtsEmerson. Quite the opposite.
Though global turmoil surrounds the personal episodes depicted onstage, Golabek and director Hershey Felder create an overall atmosphere of quiet intimacy in this 90-minute solo show. It’s as if she is leafing through a family album, summoning memories, sharing confidences, showing us the pictures, and explaining why so many pages are empty.
The tale Golabek has to tell — and we do sense that she has to tell it — is of her own mother, Lisa Jura, a child prodigy and aspiring pianist who fled the Nazis as a young teenager. It’s a story not just of the life Jura left behind but of the life she built. As Golabek portrays her mother from adolescence to early adulthood, she returns repeatedly — reverently — to a gleaming grand piano on the stage of the Paramount Center’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theater. Golabek’s performances of the classical pieces Jura loved (by Chopin, Debussy, Beethoven, and especially Grieg) do the work words can’t do.
This marriage of music and biographical storytelling is a specialty of Felder, who adapted “The Children of Willesden Lane,’’ a book co-written by Golabek and Lee Cohen. Felder recently appeared at ArtsEmerson in his own one-man shows, “George Gershwin Alone’’ and “Maestro: Leonard Bernstein.’’ Gershwin and Bernstein, of course, are household names, and Lisa Jura is not. Yet by the end we feel we know her.
We definitely admire her. Felder’s script and Golabek’s performance blend into a portrait of a remarkable young woman whose combination of self-possession, romantic idealism, and dogged resilience kept her afloat when others might well have foundered.
A melodramatic tone does suffuse “The Pianist of Willesden Lane’’ from time to time, and there are a couple of other missteps. At the beginning, while Golabek is slipping into character, prerecorded orchestral music swells and continues to surge through the theater for several moments, nearly drowning out Jura’s words just as we’re getting to know her. Later, in a misguided comic touch, we hear a woman’s prerecorded voice spluttering at inordinate length and high volume from the other end of a telephone line.
But on balance Felder shows restraint and sensitivity in his adaptation and direction alike, and Golabek, a concert pianist of note, mostly steers clear of mawkishness, even as she delivers an exceptionally heartfelt daughter-to-mother tribute.
Jura’s love of the piano was at the center of her being from an early age, and the instrument proved to be her lifeline during the years of upheaval that began when she was 14, a Jewish girl living with her parents and two sisters in 1938 Vienna. She dreamed of performing Grieg’s Piano Concerto with the Vienna Philharmonic. But the Nazi persecution of Jews was intensifying. Early in “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,’’ Golabek’s Jura describes seeing her father, Abraham, being beaten by soldiers; then the performer channels Abraham as he tells his wife, in a trembling voice, how they forced him and other men to dance naked in the street.
Abraham manages to secure a single ticket for a place on the Kindertransport, the system of trains and ferries that took Jewish children from Germany and Austria to England. Golabek movingly depicts the anguish of Jura’s mother, Malka, who with her husband must choose which of their children to send to safety.
The set, by David A. Buess and Trevor Hay, evokes a picture gallery with large gilt frames. Projection designers Greg Sowizdrzal and Andrew Wilder fill them with resonant images: of Jewish families hastening to get children aboard the Kindertransport, of row upon row of girls and women at sewing machines in a manufacturing plant, of warplanes darkening the sky and soldiers landing on the beach at Normandy.
“The Pianist of Willesden Lane’’ takes us through Jura’s private journey in those years of tumult. She endures the Blitz in London, including the bombing of the hostel where she lives. She works in a garment factory while constantly fearing for her family: Her letters keep coming back stamped “Unable to deliver.’’ She holds her breath after applying for a scholarship at London’s Royal Academy of Music. She finally makes her concert debut — playing Grieg’s Piano Concerto. Along the way, she meets a French Resistance fighter who tells her she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen.
It is not a spoiler to say that the man, named Michel Golabek, followed her to America after the war. They married and had two daughters, Mona and Renee. And Lisa Jura taught both of them how to play the piano.