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 "The Pianist" a unique theater experience: No one but Golabek could tell this story in this way. In the audience you can feel the power of this collective realization — and see it in the eyes being dabbed and hear it in the sniffles being sniffed — that the true ending of this story is a daughter onstage paying incredible tribute to her mother and the many who sacrificed before her.
"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."