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
"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.
Golabek said her "jaw fell open" when Felder said he would produce her, but she became more outright anxious when he delivered another key pronouncement.
"He made the pivotal decision of saying, 'Mona, you're going to inhabit your mother. You're going to do this in the first person,'" Golabek recalled. "I will never forget when he called me up and said, 'This is how we're going to alter it,' and I thought: How am I going to inhabit the childlike feeling and a teenager's feeling being a woman myself? That was when he also said, 'And Mona, you're going to enroll in an acting class.'"
So Golabek took acting lessons, and Felder worked on the script, and she visited him in the various cities where he was performing so they could fine-tune their work.
"He's very collaborative, and he's very generous," Golabek said, adding with a laugh, "but he's also the boss."
"It sort of was a dictatorship," Felder said with his own laugh. "It started off as, you know, 'I'd like to do this,' 'I'd like to do that' — meaning Mona — and I said, 'Well, listen, I really do understand how to do this. It's not that I understand how to do this as much as I understand what really doesn't work. You need to leave it in my hands.'"
What emerged is a show that pulls off a tricky balancing act as Golabek, wearing a red wig over her blond hair, presents Lisa Jura's story with a certain restraint so that the story itself, plus musical performances that range from delicate pianissimo to thundering passion, carries the emotions.
Robinson said the changes between Golabek's book-related presentations and the show surprised him. "I was overcome by her transformation from someone who delivered a very effective story about her mother to someone who was playing her mother, just inhabiting that role," Robinson said. "I really wasn't prepared for it. What was a strong story became 10 times more powerful."
"The Pianist of Willesden Lane" opened about a year ago at Los Angeles' Geffen Playhouse and was extended multiple times, running for about five months. It then moved to Boston before opening to glowing reviews in Chicago last month. (It's scheduled to be in Berkeley, Calif., in October, Felder said.)
"I would like to stay in Chicago as long as I can because I have never had a reaction to the show as I am experiencing here," Golabek said. "I'm so grateful, every night, to see audiences responding the way that they do and waiting in line to talk to me and tell me that this story is their story, and it touches something in their heart."
Sometimes, she said, people address her as Lisa and ask about her sisters, and she has to remind them that, no, no, she's Mona, the daughter. Then there are those who think, wait, she's the daughter? The person acting out this story and performing this music is the actual daughter of the actual person being depicted?
"They're kind of stunned," Golabek said.
This connection is part of what makes
"This is the descendant of all those people who were lost," Felder said. "She's here. She's in the flesh. This is her. And we're looking at it for real. It's not manufactured."
Golabek's home remains in Los Angeles, where she said she took charge of raising Renee's four children after her sister died in 2006. Golabek said she can think of nothing better to do than to continue to spread this story, through her book and her performances in whatever cities will have her as well, as a feature film she's trying to develop based on the book.
"I don't know anyone who has been devoted to telling one story for so long and so determined to get that story out there in so many ways and venues as she has," Robinson said. "I'm kind of in awe of her in being so relentless in telling that story and pursuing it."
"This is my mission," Golabek said. "This is my raison d'etre. I'm bringing everything to bear here, my years of concertizing, the radio syndication, the work that I did with my mother, the travels that I've taken. And this," she added with a laugh, "is where I will go off into the sunset."
Playing true to herself
It's rare enough for someone to portray her mother onstage, even rarer for her to play concert-level piano while in character as her. How does Mona Golabek think her playing compares with her mom's?
"She was extremely emotional, very poetic," Golabek said. "She always said, 'Go out there and tell a story. Don't worry if you make a wrong note. Don't worry if you mess something up. But don't leave me not feeling something.' So she was a very feeling pianist. I've often said that I don't think I have her legato. I don't have her ability to spin a phrase, play a Chopin nocturne the way she did because she was playing from such incredible life experience. She put it all in there. But many people tell me that I do have that, so I'm hoping I do. I think I have a greater power than her at the piano and a greater technique."
Onstage is she trying to inhabit her mother's piano playing or is she playing the music as she would interpret it?
"We were challenged by that. Hershey (Felder) thought: 'Should we have you not play so well in the beginning? Should you be like a young girl, a teenager, trying to learn your notes and figure it out?' But we ultimately fell into the fact that I'm an accomplished artist out there, God willing, and it didn't come natural for me to kind of goof. I'm Mona playing the piano in the end. I'm my own person doing that."