The Pianist of Willesden Lane (San Diego REP)

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Where did San Diego REP find an actress who plays the piano brilliantly? Mona Golabek is amazing, and her one-woman play, The Pianist of Willesden Lane, is filled with gratitude, honor, and passion. It’s storytelling at its best as Golabek narrates part of her Jewish heritage with a grand piano in a supporting role.

The piano sits center stage with a gleam of light hitting its open lid, simply waiting to be played. The large gold picture frames that surround it soon hold projected images of film and photos. From family portraits, to bookshelves, to a train station, to footage of WWII.

Golabek plays the role of her mother, Lisa Jura, and creatively uses her voice to characterize those who were part of her mother’s upbringing. Each classical composition played is fine tuned to represent Jura’s growth and love of music. When not seated on the piano bench, Golabek moves across the stage revealing her mother’s escape on the Kindertransport, a train that transported Jewish children out of Nazi territory. Her journey ends at a hostel in London on Willesden Lane, where long lasting friendships are made and the dream of becoming a pianist is fulfilled.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane is based on the book, The Children of Willesden Lane by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen. Adapted and directed by Hershey Felder.

Mona-Golabek

Theatre Geek and Mona Golabek.

Water by the Spoonful (The Old Globe)

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On the surface Water by the Spoonful deals with recovering crack addicts and broken relationships, but this Pulitzer Prize-winning drama offers so much more.

We’re first introduced to cousins Elliot (Rey Lucas) and Yazmine (Sarah Nina Hayon) discussing the health of their Aunt Ginny, who soon passes away. For Elliot, the loss of his aunt is especially difficult since she raised him from when he was five, and he considers her his own mother. Soon he is forced to reconnect with his birth mother, and their meeting brings up bad childhood memories and issues of abandonment. Elliot is also struggling with a leg injury from a tour in Iraq, an addiction to painkillers. and haunted visions of a slain Iraqi civilian. Luckily for Elliot, Yazmine, strong willed and well educated, fulfills a motherly role as she nurtures him and provides emotional support as Elliot struggles to adjust to civilian life.

Eventually, we learn that Odessa (Marilyn Torres) is Elliot’s biological mother, who has been estranged from her family since becoming a crack addict, and whose poor parenting skills led to the death of her daughter. Now sober, Odessa spends most of her days running an online chat room to support other addicts in their efforts to get and stay clean. Perhaps this fills the void of having failed as mother and provides her a purpose in life.

As the multi-colored neon tube lights that cross overhead and under the stage floor flicker on, it’s apparent that we are connected to the chat room and are able to meet Odessa’s clan. Each addict has his or her own story and path to recovery. Here we learn the challenges of admitting and overcoming an addiction. It’s a tough journey, but one filled with hope and a second chance at life, a rebirth if you will.

Sometimes small steps are needed to heal wounds, mend relationships, and make peace with the past. Some call it baby steps, others may call it taking it one day at a time. Playwright, Quiara Alegría Hudes calls it Water by the Spoonful.

Photo: Marilyn Torres as Odessa Ortiz aka Haikumom in the California Premiere of Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Water by the Spoonful, directed by Edward Torres.

RED (San Diego REP)

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Creating art is a unique process for each individual artist. The final masterpiece can be a migration of inspiration, reflection and temperament. RED takes the audience through the journey of Mark Rothko’s “Seagram Murals”, a series of paintings, commissioned by the beverage company, Seagram, which were to be displayed in The Four Seasons, an upscale New York restaurant.

The American abstract expressionist constantly asks, “What do you see?”  The real question should be “What to you feel?”  After all, Rothko wants the viewer to have an emotional connection to his art. To think that RED implies the color would be to make the same mistake Rothko (John Vickery) makes when his assistant, Ken (Jason Maddy), recommends red in one of the paintings. Ken frustratingly states, “I didn’t mean red paint only. I meant the emotion of red at sunrise.” As Rothko argues, “sunrise isn’t red.” The two get into a vocal spar and list red objects that evoke certain feelings: passion, atrial blood, apples, the sun in Rousseau, the albino’s eyes, nick yourself shaving, the Ruby Slippers, the Russian flag, sport cars­—the list goes on. Playwright John Logan’s creative approach of having the two actors actually paint a large canvas red on stage draws the audience in for their own art experience, giving us the opportunity to contemplate our own feelings of red.

John Vickery as Rothko in RED.

John Vickery as Rothko in RED.
(Photo by Daren Scott)

As we observe Rothko’s creative process and arrogant personality, we also witness his vulnerability when Ken explodes and berates Rothko for his attitude toward the art world. The outburst leads to a pivotal moment for Rothko and the commissioning of his murals.

This 2010 Tony award-winning play runs until April 27 at San Diego REP. It’s a fantastic play that sparks an interest in Rothko’s art and allows the audience to share in the emotional process of creating it.