As Mona Golabek signs books immediately after each performance of her one-woman show, "The Pianist of Willesden Lane," at the Royal George Theatre, people ask her variations on a theme:
"How do you do this every night?"
"What do you go through every night?"
"How do you live it?"
These questions are not only logical but inescapable, really, to anyone who has experienced the wrenchingly powerful conclusion to Golabek's show, which Hershey Felder adapted and directed based on her real-life material. There is Golabek, an accomplished pianist, inhabiting the role of her mother, an accomplished pianist whose ability to fulfill her talent is due to the sacrifice of her parents, who secured her passage on the Kindertransport from Nazi-occupied Vienna to London during World War II.
Golabek's face wears not only the emotion of the character she's playing, her then-young survivor mother, but no doubt herself as well, because Golabek wouldn't be there, and wouldn't be playing piano with such skill and feeling, if not for the story she is relating to audiences every night.
So what is she going through?
"Every night it's different," the 50-something performer said in her deep, precise speaking voice while seated in the Royal George auditorium on a recent weekday morning, a black Steinway grand looming onstage. "There are some nights that I find it so difficult to finish the lines … but I work my way through it because I don't want to fall into it. I want to be strong."
This is, after all, an inspirational story, albeit one that unfolds against the tragic backdrop of the Holocaust. So many died, yet Lisa Jura, Golabek's mother, survived and fulfilled the promise that her mother elicited from her before the 14-year-old girl boarded the train that would take her away from her parents forever. (Lisa Jura Golabek died in 1997.)
"My grandmother said (to my mother), 'You must make me a promise: That you will never stop playing, that you will hold on to your music, that it will be your best friend. It's going to give you the strength. I love you, never forget that,'" Golabek said, the words pouring from her, as they do onstage, as she relates a tale she heard so many times that it lives in her bones.
So, she said, the emotional stakes keep rising after she delivers her last lines and begins to perform the Grieg Piano Concerto that served as her mother's professional debut.
"I always have images that go through to me of the (death) camps, the things that we've all been raised on, and those images really affect me as I'm playing those powerful (chords)," Golabek said. "I imagine my mother lighting the Shabbos candles. So I see those images, but I'm trying very hard to just deliver cleanly, purely, what my mother must have dreamed in that moment when she walked out onstage. I try to imagine what was in her heart, and I try to tell it very clearly and without putting a lot of weight on it, even though I'm fighting back those tears."
Pulling off such moments calls upon Golabek's long history as a storyteller and musician, as well as her recent training as an actor. "The Pianist of Willesden Lane," which has been extended through May 25 amid hopes for an even longer run, isn't some sort of therapeutic exercise, after all, but a work of theater that has been crafted and honed over several years with Felder, a veteran of one-person musicals ("George Gershwin Alone," "Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein").
"The story is very real, and it's meant to feel real every night, but I've also given her the tricks of the trade in terms of creating the illusion for the public," Felder said from Paris. "A person can't live through death and destruction every night. It doesn't work."
Golabek already had a long history with this material by the time she linked up with Felder. She previously explored it in "The Children of Willesden Lane," a 2002 book she co-authored with journalist Lee Cohen, and the response to it was so strong that she toured the country doing large-scale presentations to cities and school groups in which she would relate her mother's journey and perform related works on the piano.
Turning back the clock … the book research, she said, was prompted by her playing the Grieg concerto with the Seattle Symphony and realizing, "Oh, my God, I'm playing the piece that my mother made her debut with."
Turning it back further … Golabek and her younger sister, Renee, both became concert pianists thanks to their mother's teaching as they grew up in Los Angeles. Although some children resist lessons from a parent, Golabek said that as a student she was "the best. (My mother) always said I could take criticism in the most amazing way, because I loved her so deeply. I think in a way my sister and I wanted to take away our parents' pain, so we wanted to achieve a lot, and our parents always said, 'Be worthy of the losses, and be worthy of where you've come from, and make something of your life.' That was sort of the inherent feeling underneath growing up children of survivors."
The person who connected Golabek to Felder was WFMT-FM 98.7 general manager/Executive Vice President Steve Robinson, whose station carried Golabek's syndicated classical music/spoken word radio show, "The Romantic Hours." Robinson had seen her "terrific" music-and-talk presentations about her book and thought Felder might be a helpful contact for her.
So he introduced them at a Los Angeles performance of Felder's "Beethoven, As I Knew Him" one-man show in 2008, and not long afterward she was presenting to him the musical narration of her mother's story that she had developed.
"I read the book, and it was really a fantastic story, and she came and performed bits and pieces of what she had put together from it," Felder recalled. "It was one of those moments where you don't really think. You just say, 'OK, I'll take on this challenge.'" He laughed.