The world premiere of Emily Mann’s theatrical adaptation of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoir, The Pianist, opened at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick last weekend and will run through October 22. Directed by Mann, the show has an original score by Iris Hond.
The Pianist is Szpilman’s recounting of the annihilation of the Jews of Warsaw, and how he—a leading young Polish pianist and composer—survived. He had many dark days, but his music both consoled him and inspired him to keep living.
Why now? You may recall that Tony Award-winning Mann’s career has emphasized social justice, through such works as Having Our Say and Gloria: A Life. Szpilman’s story is, of course, a cautionary tale, and taking it on now is a timely move, as surveys show the Holocaust receding in public memory and as anti-semitic rhetoric and attacks are on the rise. It’s dangerous to ignore those past lessons, when around the world extremist leaders grow increasingly prominent. Who might their net targets be?
A terrific cast has been assembled for this production, including Russian-born actor Daniel Donskoy, who makes his American stage debut as Szpilman, bringing both passion and intelligence to the role. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. In Szpilman’s nuclear family are his father (played by Austin Pendleton), mother (Claire Beckman), sisters Regina (Arielle Goldman) and Halina (Georgia Warner), and brother Henryk (Paul Spera).
Henryk can’t stop warning his family about fascism’s deadly implications, as the dark cloud descends on Warsaw. The parents don’t want to hear—or believe—it. Much like Szpilman, his father loses himself in music, almost obsessively playing his violin, but bit by bit, the ability to maintain the illusion of normalcy or that it can ever be regained, disappears along with the city’s food supply.
Several other actors—Charlotte Ewing, Jordan Lage, Robert David Grant, and Tina Benko—take on multiple roles as resistance fighters, people who try to help Szpilman or not, and Nazis. The play’s short scenes build and deepen Szpilman’s despair, as the whole is knitted together by the piano score of Iris Hond, which combines her original music, classical pieces, and Szpilman’s own work.
Anyone who needs evidence of the significance of this production need only read the biographical sketch for actor Claire Beckman, which concludes with her gratitude to Emily Mann for including her in this work of art “and by extension my great grandmother Anna Frankova Pickova, murdered in Terezin in 1943.”
The Pianist is on stage at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. Tickets available here or by calling 732-246-7717.