When Harry Met Rehab: A Q&A with Melissa Gilbert & Dan Butler about healing and laughter

When Harry Met Rehab: A Q&A with Melissa Gilbert & Dan Butler about healing and laughter

In 2011 in a widely-publicized incident, Chicago sports-radio personality Harry Teinowitz was arrested for driving under the influence. He has now transformed that pain into a port-in-a-storm for all of us.

When Harry Met Rehab opens at the Greenhouse Theater Center on Wednesday, November 24 for a limited engagement through January 30. ESPN’s Spike Manton co-authored the play with Harry. The cast will include iconic award-winning actors Melissa Gilbert and Dan Butler in the lead roles. Melissa plays Barb, a therapist and former addict and magician. Dan is Harry himself.

Melissa has starred in over fifty television, film and theater productions, including as Laura Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie and Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. She also served as president of the Screen Actors Guild and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Dan Butler is known for playing Bob “Bulldog” Briscoe on seven seasons of Frasier and “Art” on Roseanne. He has also appeared on Broadway and in his own acclaimed one-man show.

Melissa and Dan are joined by a powerhouse Chicago cast: Elizabeth Laidlaw, Keith Gallagher, Chiké Johnson and Richie Gomez. The cast’s credits include Steppenwolf, The Goodman Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Lookingglass Theatre and Broadway.

When Harry Met Rehab is loosely based on the true story of Harry Teinowitz’s arduous path to recovery. In these extraordinary times, every citizen on this weary earth longs for recoveries of many kinds. This play illuminates the way. In rehab, Harry encounters four strangers who become his lifelines and rescue him from “clueless annihilation.” As he connects with these generous imperfect humans, perseverance and empathy become important guiding lights, but not the only ones. This “comedy that takes sobriety seriously” emphasizes how humor, even in dark times, says Dan, “enhances your life spirit.”

Melissa and Dan kindly spoke with me by phone about why Harry moved them to spend winter in Chicago and how this poignant, funny play can heal us all.

Teme: How did you each become involved with When Harry Met Rehab? 

Melissa: I was in Chicago a month ago with my husband [Timothy Busfield] while he was directing an episode of Chicago Med. Then we went on a road trip down to Houston to visit one of our grandchildren, the newest one. I got a phone call from one of the producers, Don Clark, who’s a friend of ours, who said, “Hey, something’s happened here with our production. Somebody had to drop out. We’ve got this wonderful role. We’d love to offer it to you. Would you be interested? Can we talk you into coming?” I read the play and found it irresistible. The timing was right and so we ended up driving right back here, and here we are.

Dan: I did a reading of an early version about ten months ago over Zoom. My friend Jackson Gay had been working on the project. She’s directing this production also. I knew she was casting it here. I had other things that were going on in my life and I wasn’t really staying in touch with it. Then she called and said, “We’ve got this amazing cast. Would you like to come and play Harry?” I had just had rotator cuff arthroscopic surgery and was in a sling. And she goes, “We know all about that. It will probably work well with your rehab. The play is about rehab, but alcohol, substance abuse rehab.” Everything seemed to fit. I was drawn to the project very strongly and it was a gift. So I said, “Yes, let’s do it!”

Dan Butler

Teme: What is it like to play Harry when he’s actually in the room?

Dan: Harry is very generous. He loves actors and he loves that this is being done. I want to do the best possible job, as do all of us, to bring this play to life. So it feels great. It’s not a burden at all.  

Teme: What do you each especially love about your characters?

Melissa: Barb is a fascinating character and something I’ve never really had to stretch to portray before. She’s a former heroin addict and a former magician. So that tells you right there that she’s interesting and colorful and has a lot of life underneath her belt.

To have the opportunity not just to play this character, but to be a part of this ensemble with all of these actors and all of the actors from Chicago who are in the cast … They’re just so extraordinary and it’s so much fun to play with them. To top it all off, I get to do a comedy, which is not something I get to do a lot. And it’s a new play and my first time doing theater in Chicago in a show that originated here. It was irresistible to me.

Melissa Gilbert

Dan: Yes. A lot of that that resonates with me. It’s not just what I like about the characters; it’s what I like about the piece. It’s about how to look at a serious subject and process it through comedy. Sometimes you use humor to avoid a topic, but then you learn how to incorporate it. So how then does humor, the comedy, become a song of the human spirit instead of avoidance or deflection? I love Harry’s courage in telling this story, sometimes in a self-deprecating way. 

Teme: I was very moved by the play’s intent to honor people in recovery and their families and friends. What insights will the play give the audience about how to support people in recovery?

Melissa: One of the things is to remind people that addiction is a disease. It is not a choice. A choice is made initially whether to have that first drink or have that first pill or have that first snort or whatever it is, but that is a disease. It is a disease that is universal and relatable. It’s not necessarily just drugs and alcohol. It’s also shopping, gambling, sex, love. We’ve all experienced addiction in one way or another. It’s touched all of our lives. [The play] reminds us that no one is alone. All of these experiences are universal. We need to remember to actively support one another.

Dan: Yes. I’m drawn to all the points that Melissa made so beautifully. Also, [the play is about] recovery in a general sense; recovery from whatever COVID did to our spirits, from anger, from polarization. How do we find a way back to being empathetic of one another and to support people in overcoming any illnesses, spiritual or physical?

Teme: It sounds like When Harry Met Rehab has a lot to say about perseverance and optimism. What do you hope the audience will take away?

Dan: I just love that the focus is on the effect other human beings have on your life and on being present for them and honoring them. Maybe at first meeting they are people that you would never think wisdom would come from … From the least likely sources you’re given gifts that will stay with you the rest of your life. Or people could end up saving your life and you never expected it. Or a journey appears that you never expected to be taking. To be present in the moment and look around you and see the people that are in your life and be grateful for them.

Melissa: I want them to walk away knowing that they’re not alone, that we all have a commonality of experience and that really our primary job is to love one another through all of it.

Teme: What strategies will you be employing to survive Chicago in December and January?!

Melissa: I’m very lucky. My sweet husband drove our car all the way back to New York with my summer/spring clothes that I’ve been traveling with and came back yesterday; drove twelve hours straight yesterday with all of my winter stuff, including my snow suits, my snow boots. We lived in Michigan for five years, so I’m pretty winter-proof. But I didn’t have any of that stuff with me and now I do, and I feel much better.

Dan: I’ve been living in Vermont for the past two years, so I’m pretty bolstered for winter. But I have heard that Chicago winters are something to behold, so I’m just going to have to experience it and do my best!

Teme: What are you looking forward to doing in Chicago when you’re not on stage?

Dan: Well, I’ve been to a couple of plays already. I wanted to take in some theater before our schedule conflicts. I ask as many people as possible to give me their recommendations of what they love about the city, whether it’s restaurants or art museums. I really want to take the architectural boat ride. I’m open to all!

Melissa: I’m the same!

Teme: You both have played many fascinating and iconic characters. Have any of them given you a special insight or perspective on how to navigate our challenging times?

Melissa: Having portrayed somebody who lived in the late 1800s into the early 1900s and part of the American experiment to settle the West definitely prepared me for what we went through. So much so, I actually wrote a book about it that’s coming out in May. It talks about our place in the Catskills and raising chickens and planting and building our garden and building the coop and doing it all ourselves. That was our first experience in homesteading. I think it was something we were leaning towards for sure, but it was definitely invigorated by the pandemic and what was ahead and what we didn’t know. We didn’t know how things were going to go, so we had to be prepared.

Dan: I can think of lessons and joys or gifts that parts have given me, or reminders or redirections, but right now I’m most interested in why this project came into my life now and what Harry and this journey with these actors have to teach me. I just keep asking questions about that because usually it has something to teach me about my own life at this time.

Teme: What was the last thing that made you laugh?

Melissa: I can’t tell you specifically what the last thing was that made me laugh, but I can tell you that it happened about, I don’t know, forty-five minutes ago in the car ride from the theater here to where we’re staying with my husband and Dan. There’s inevitable laughter when we’re in an enclosed space. I don’t specifically remember what it was, but I laugh all the time with either or both of these gentlemen.

Dan: It was laughing in the rehearsal hall. It’s such a great joy to be around other actors and be doing what we love to do and suddenly we’re cracking each other up just delving into this whole journey.

Teme: Did you bring anything special with you to Chicago?

Dan: There’s a picture I’m looking at now. I don’t know where it came from, but it brings me such joy. It’s an old black and white photo of a kid on a bicycle bundled up for winter with his mouth open trying to catch snowflakes. I like having that around to remind me not to take myself so seriously.

Melissa: We have bins that we travel with that basically have a kitchen in them. So we have my Le Creuset Dutch oven and knives and kitchen implements and micro peelers and juicers and stuff like that, so that I can cook. I’m actually in the kitchen right now as we speak, chopping carrots. So there you go!

Teme: Very cool! What are you making?

Melissa: I am making Dean Richards’ sweet potato curry soup.

Teme: Oh, that sounds amazing! And absolutely anything else that we should add?

Dan: Come see the play! Come join us!

Melissa: Yes! For me, the safest place to be is in a theater because everyone’s tested, everyone’s masked. It’s a great place to feel safe and escape and enjoy and maybe see a little bit of yourself in others.

Dan: It’s a joyous defiance of this disease. Bring it on. We will survive it, and you survive it through art. Step out and be part of that.

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You can attend the world premiere of When Harry Met Rehab at The Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.

When Harry Met Rehab previews on November 24 and opens on December 5 for a limited engagement through January 30, 2022. TICKETS AND MORE INFORMATION: whenharrymetrehab.com

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