For her one-woman show, "The Pianist of Willesden Lane," the concert pianist Mona Golabek slips into the persona of her mother, Lisa Jura, to tell a remarkable story of music, memory and resilience during the darkest days of World War II.
But Golabek brings another character to vivid life in the performance, which is being staged Saturday night at Oregon State University.
"It's the music that's one of the great characters," Golabek said this week in an interview with The E. "Every piece of great music tells its own story."
So, at the start of "The Pianist of Willesden Lane," Golabek introduces herself, steps to the piano and plays a few notes from the Grieg Piano Concerto.
"My name is Lisa Jura, and I'm 14 years old," she says. "It's Vienna, 1938, and it's a Friday afternoon. I'm preparing for the most important hour of my week — my piano lesson."
The rise of the Nazi regime sidetracks the musical plans of young Lisa, and it starts at that day's piano lesson: Her instructor tells her he no longer is allowed to teach Jewish students.
It is the first of many setbacks: Lisa is separated from her family. Eventually, her father is able to buy a seat on the kindertransport, the trains supported by British charities that moved thousands of European children to safety in England. Lisa ends up at a group home in London for children of the kindertransport. The house is located on Willesden Lane.
"The Pianist of Willesden Lane" was adapted from a book that Golabek wrote with Lee Cohen, but as the pianist searched for other avenues to tell the story of her mother, she hit on the idea of adapting the book into a stage show.
As she labored on that effort, Golabek reached out for advice from Hershey Felder, an actor, musician and producer with experience mounting one-person shows that involve classical music.
Golabek presented a 20-minute synopsis of the show for Felder. Then, to her surprise, Felder said he would work with her to develop the show.
"He changed the course of my life," Golabek said.
But then, the hard work began. Golabek is an accomplished musician, but she had no experience as an actor. And the show requires her not just to portray her mother — in itself a daunting task — but other characters as well.
Felder proved to be an uncompromising taskmaster, Golabek said. "He took no prisoners," she recalled, and offered this constant reminder: "You're going to be alone on that stage."
But the hard work paid off: "The Pianist of Willesden Lane" opened in April 2012 at the Geffen Playhouse. Golabek since has performed the show hundreds of times in Chicago, Berkeley, London and New York. The New York run drew plaudits from a New York Times critic, who praised the "graceful, restrained and quietly captivating" performance. Later this year, the show will settle into the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. for a run.
The show relies heavily on musical favorites, including selections such as Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata, Debussy's "Clair de Lune" and Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C sharp minor. And, of course, that Grieg Piano Concerto, which was one of Lisa Jura's favorite pieces of music.
Golabek also performs a shortened version of the show for students; in fact, earlier this week, 4,000 students attended one of a number of performances during a three-day stint in Longview, Washington.
Golabek hopes the show gives a message of hope to those students (and, for that matter, adult audiences): "What do you hold onto in the darkest times?"
For Lisa Jura, the answer was music.
For Golabek, "Willesden Lane" gives her the chance to step back into the life of her mother and explore how music helped give rise to courage and hope.
It's an opportunity she's not taking for granted.
"The challenge for me is how do I walk out every night" and play that role, she said.
That's when she remembers this advice, received as she was preparing the show: "If it doesn't cost you, get off the stage. ... You can't walk out there and glide through it."