The story Mona Golabek tells in “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” is as passionate as the music she plays to illustrate it.
In this captivating 90-minute drama drawn from real life, the aspirations of a Jewish child prodigy are cruelly swept aside in the Nazi regime’s rise to power. Golabek plays her mother, Lisa Jura, a piano student living in Vienna when the play begins in 1938.
A gleaming grand piano, center stage in the new Berkeley Repertory Theatre production directed by Hershey Felder, underscores this ultimately uplifting one-woman show. As Golabek embellishes the narrative with performances of the music that sustained Lisa, the instrument becomes both a symbol of survival and the outlet for the character’s deepest hopes and fears.
Based on the book “The Children of Willesden Lane” by Golabek and Lee Cohen, and adapted for the stage by Felder, the play begins with 14-year-old Lisa arriving for her weekly piano lesson. She’s thrilled to be in the “Vienna of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Mahler” — until her teacher explains a new law preventing him from teaching Jewish students.
When her father, a Jewish tailor, is attacked during Kristallnacht, Lisa’s parents send her to London via the Kindertransport. She lives in a children’s shelter and works as a seamstress; eventually, she’s accepted to London’s Royal Academy of Music.
Golabek recounts it all on a gilt-edged stage backed by large gold frames where family photos, composer portraits and war scenes are projected. If the journey is harrowing, she leavens it with affection and humor — the piano teacher singing off-key, the chatter of the shelter kids — and uses music as a means of transcending.
She’s a skilled pianist, and her playing, in excerpts from Beethoven, Chopin, Bach and Debussy, arrives in soothing waves. A few pieces — a Rachmaninoff prelude, played during the Blitz, and Grieg’s Piano Concerto, her ultimate musical goal — are deftly woven into the drama.
She’s not as adept as an actress. Golabek slips effortlessly into Lisa’s skin, but other characterizations, particularly male ones, come across with a generic sameness.
Felder — who played George Gershwin at Berkeley Rep earlier this year in his own “George Gershwin Alone” — does a fine job of smoothing the transitions.
Hearing Golabek tell the story, one can’t help but wonder what Lisa might have attained if her youthful aspirations been allowed to bloom. At the end, though, what registers most powerfully is Golabek’s pride in what Lisa did accomplish. She’s not simply there to tell the tale. She plays the music just the way her mother taught her.
The Pianist of Willesden Lane
Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. most Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. most Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. most Sundays; extended through Jan. 5
Tickets: $29 to $89