'The Pianist' is personal

Mona Golabek's one-woman show, "The Pianist of Willesden Lane," has earned raves in some of America's largest cities. But for the star, the play's current run at the Laguna Playhouse has a special significance.

That's because it's a return to the where the play began — miles from Los Angeles and Chicago, and unseen by all but a few.

In February 2011, Golabek, the daughter of concert pianist Lisa Jura, tested her fledgling play for an invite-only audience at the playhouse. Actor and pianist Hershey Felder was booked there at the time for a show about Leonard Bernstein, and having come on board to produce and direct Golabek's piece, he suggested that she try it out for a select crowd.

For that first show, Golabek presented her mother's story with just her voice, a piano and a few sound and visual effects to carry the evening. It was a sparer treatment than the intricate version now onstage at the playhouse, but the audience's reception told Golabek that she was onto something.

"It's really where it was born, in many ways, on that night," said Golabek, who lives in Los Angeles and New York. "That night gave me all the affirmation I needed."

Last year, the play premiered for ticket-buyers at the Geffen Playhouse and netted Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle nominations for Solo Performance and CGI/Video Design. Next, it will head to Chicago, where it played earlier this spring, as soon as its Laguna run ends.

For Golabek, the latest production is the latest stop in a more than decade-long journey to preserve her family's history. Jura, who died in 1997, escaped from Vienna on the Kindertransport — a rescue service that diverted Jewish children to England before World War II. In 2002, her daughter co-wrote the memoir "The Children of Willesden Lane," and several years later, she workshopped a one-woman play, "Promise Me," about her relationship with her mother.

That play, written by Sybille Pearson, was produced for the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles by Ann Wareham, now the Laguna Playhouse's artistic director. Though "Promise Me" never made it to a full production, the concept resonated enough with Wareham that she gladly booked Golabek's next project in the same vein.

For "The Pianist," Golabek left herself out of the narrative and made her mother — played by Golabek — the play's sole narrator. The play begins with Jura as a teenager, living in Vienna and infatuated with music. As Hitler comes to power, the signs of danger grow more and more noticeable, until a shattering moment when her beloved piano teacher refuses to give her a lesson because teaching a Jewish child is now against the law.

Jura's parents, bearing a single ticket for the Kindertransport, ship her off to England, where she lives with other refugees and continues to hone her musical talent. Throughout the play, Golabek plays a steady series of melodies from Grieg, Beethoven and others — all pieces that her mother passed on to her.

The play marks the second Holocaust-themed offering at the playhouse this year, after the youth theater production "I Never Saw Another Butterfly." So far, Golabek's work, which runs through Sunday, has drawn a warm reception, according to Wareham.

"It's been getting not one but two standing ovations every night," she said. "It's been wildly successful with our audiences."

If You Go

What: "The Pianist of Willesden Lane"

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday

Cost: $40 to $70

Information: (949) 497-2787, http://www.lagunaplayhouse.com or http://www.holdontoyourmusic.org

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