Back in college, Willy Holtzman became buds with a guy named Brian Skarstad. They became best friends, and have remained so since.

Holtzman turned his passion for language into a career as a playwright. Skarstad used his skills as a craftsman to make high-end violins.

That friendship forms the foundation of “The Morini Strad,” the season-opening play at Portland Stage Company. Holtzman wrote the play based on a real-life experience of his friend.

“The secret to writing is knowing interesting people,” said Holtzman, who lives in Connecticut. “Brian called me one day with this story.”

The play, which has its final preview tonight and opens on Friday, tells the true story of violinist Erica Morini and her relationship with Skarstad. She hired him to repair her valuable and beloved Stradivarius violin. “The Morini Strad” explores their friendship, what it means to be an artist, and the sacrifices made to become a world-class musician or craftsman.

By the time she came into Skarstad’s life, Morini was an aging diva, difficult to get along with and just prickly enough that Skarstad’s first instinct was to turn down the job. But the prospect of working on such a fine and valuable instrument was too tempting.

The one-act play, set in the recent past in Manhattan, stars Laura Esterman as Morini and John G. Preston as Skarstad. In addition, 12-year-old Seoyeon Kim of Falmouth performs behind a curtain as a violinist, offering the play the texture of live music. Paul Meshejian, founding artistic director of PlayPenn in Philadelphia, directs; he worked with Holtzman in the developmental stages of the play.

“Brian met Morini near the end of his life,” Holtzman said. “She was not a very happy person. All she had left was this violin. She knew she needed to do something about it. Her husband was long gone, and she never had a family.”

She called Skarstad to evaluate the violin and ask his advice. High-end makers generally are pretty jaded; when they are called out to appraise an instrument, they do so with skepticism. “Everyone think Uncle Wally’s attic violin is the greatest in the world,” Holtzman said.

In this instance, it truly was. Skarstad recognized Morini’s Stradivarius as a special and rare instrument, valued at $2 million or more. After researching his client and establishing the veracity of her story, he took the job.

Holtzman uses that story as a springboard for a larger narrative about the life of an artist and the friendship between two artists. Morini, who was born in 1904 and died in 1995, was a child prodigy, and spent her life living up to her legend. She performed in her native Austria for the elite, and came to the United States at age 16 for a 60-concert tour, beginning in 1921. She made her life in Manhattan.

Morini performed at a high level for many years, and gave her final concert in 1976. She spent her final 20 years in obscurity, and died relatively unknown and largely forgotten.

The old woman depicted in the play was a young woman once, with a thriving career. We see her as an aging diva whose skills have long since deserted her.

It’s a very sad, poignant story, and Holtzman does not gloss over that aspect in his play. Similarly, he explores the evolving dynamic of friendship between the two characters. They are unlikely friends. She is critical of Skarstad and some of his life choices, and he bristles at her brusqueness. But they overcome their odds and find mutual respect.

There are other elements to the play, including one compelling mystery that presents itself toward the end. In the interest of not spoiling the story, we’ll leave those details to the live-theater experience.

Holtzman developed “The Morini Strad” with Meshejian in Philadelphia in 2009. It had several readings across the Northeast and one in Colorado before premiering last November in Pittsburgh. It will get its New York premiere in 2012.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

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Twitter: pphbkeyes