In her one-woman show, “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” Mona Golabek portrays her own mother, recounting her escape from the Holocaust. As if that weren’t challenge enough, Golabek simultaneously plays piano on stage — the music of Bach, Beethoven, Debussy and Grieg — underscoring a harrowing story of survival and hope.
How does she do it, performance after performance? Practice, practice, practice.
“It’s a very difficult thing to do,” says Golabek, a virtuoso pianist who had no prior acting experience before starring in the play. “You just keep working, over and over. You memorize and get it into the fabric of your heart, soul and muscles.”
Following lengthy hit runs in Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston, “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” makes its Bay Area premiere starting Friday, Oct. 25 at Berkeley Reportory Theatre.
In the show, Golabek pays homage to her late mom, Lisa Jura, who made it out of her native Austria and onto the Kindertransport to England just before the Nazi crackdown trapped most of Europe’s Jews. Her mother lost everyone in her family, but held on thanks in part to her love of music.
Golabek wrote a book about her mother’s experience in 2003. The title, “The Children of Willesden Lane,” refers to the young refugees who stayed at a hostel on Willesden Lane and formed a family of sorts with one another. Last year the book was adapted for the stage.
“When the book was published, I had tremendous support from the Milken Family Foundation and the Annenberg Foundation to bring this to students,” Golabek recalls. “I would do presentations for educators in different cities, and very often after that I would do a mini-version [of the play]. People told me it would make a great play.”
To make that happen, she enlisted the help of pianist Hershey Felder, who had enjoyed international success creating one-man shows about Beethoven, Chopin and Gershwin, that similarly blend acting and piano playing. Felder adapted Golabek’s book and directs the play.
“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” owes its existence to a promise extracted long before Golabek was born. In 1938, her grandmother, herself a gifted pianist, put Lisa Jura on a train, enabling the 14-year-old to join the Kindertransport out of Austria. Before their last embrace, Lisa’s mother whispered, “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.” They would never see each other again.
The child was taken in by a Christian family in London, where they endured the Blitzkrieg. And she kept her promise to her mother, who perished in Auschwitz, by becoming a pianist.
Eventually she immigrated to Los Angeles, where she married and taught piano to her daughters, Mona and Renee. Both went on to renowned careers as concert pianists (Renee died in 2006). Golabek also hosts “The Romantic Hours,” a popular syndicated classical music radio show.
But besides teaching them about music, their mother also shared her stories of prewar Austria, of her harrowing escape and the bitter losses of the Holocaust.
“She was the most extraordinary, passionate, flirtatious, complex person,” remembers Golabek. “She revealed these stories with great panache and Viennese charm. But for any child being told stories of the Holocaust this becomes a branding in the heart. I loved her deeply, but it wounded me. It created my destiny in many ways.”
A key aspect of that destiny is educating younger generations about the Holocaust, using her mother’s story as a springboard. Through her Hold On to Your Music Foundation, Golabek has taken her mother’s story to hundreds of classrooms around the country, with her book used as a teaching tool and Golabek, herself, occasionally making presentations.
She does this not only to honor her mother and relatives who died in the Holocaust, but to make sure future generations never forget what happened.
“The fear is that this just becomes a footnote in history,” she says. “I’m fond of saying I’ve been a pianist all my life, interpreting the great composers, but what defines me most is that I’m a proud Jew and deeply love Israel.”
With so much fraught emotion in her backstory, it’s a wonder Golabek pulls it together to play her mother. Yet it is no wonder to her.
“How do you walk out every night and give a piece of your heart to the audience, especially when it’s such a personal story?” she asks. “The first thing I remind myself is of the privilege I have to walk out. Secondly, I remind myself of the great purpose, of a very important and inspiring story. That fuels me.”
“The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” Oct. 25-Dec. 8, Berkeley Rep, 2025Addison St., Berkeley. $29-$89, (510) 647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org