Straight from the mind of Chicago sports-radio personality Harry Teinowitz comes a play built on diversity called When Harry Met Rehab. Former ESPN personality Spike Manton teamed with Teinowitz to write the script, and Jackson Gay is directing the upcoming production for Chicago's Greenhouse Theater Center.
When Harry Met Rehab tells the personal story of Teinowitz's journey to recovery. The sobering tale is brought to life with a cast dominated by Chicago actors with long local resumes in theater work, including Elizabeth Laidlaw, Keith D. Gallagher and Chike Johnson.
Out actor Dan Butler stars at Teinowitz in this Chicago premiere. Many will recognize Butler the TV shows Frasier (in which he played Bulldog) and Roseanne (in which he was Art).
Emmy-winning performer Melissa Gilbert is also part of the cast, playing rehab counselor Barb. Gilbert will forever be known for the television show Little House on the Prairie, starring as the main character Laura Ingalls Wilder. She has followed that with multiple appearances on TV and the stage over the years in addition to being an accomplished writer.
Windy City Times: Tell our readers what When Harry Met Rehab is about, in general.
Dan Butler: It is about Harry Teinowitz, a sports-radio celebrity in Chicago. About 10 years ago, he had a very public DUI. He went to rehab for about eight weeks to keep his job and stay out of jail. It is about those eight weeks and framed around a group. It is about his therapist and the support group that changed his life.
WCT: I worked on WGN Radio segments with Harry a few years ago. He's a character!
Melissa Gilbert: Yes, he is.
WCT: How is it playing him so far, Dan?
DB: I am sure it will be an amalgam of him and me. He wrote the piece during the lockdown and wanted to do something creative. It was first going to be a one-man show and now his writer friend Spike said to expand it.
WCT: How did you both become involved with When Harry Met Rehab?
MG: I have a long relationship with one of the producers, Don Clark. An actress, who was planned for the role, had dropped out. I had just been in Chicago with my husband, who directed an episode of Chicago Med. I am so glad it worked out where I could fill in and the team here is great.
The story is not just about recovery from substance abuse, but all of us recovering from so many things. We have to find a way back to fellowship, empathy and companionship. We weren't feeling these things because we were locked away from each other.
DB: My dear friend Jackson Gay is directing this and asked me to be in it 10 months ago. I was having my rotator cuff worked on and was in rehab when I got the role. I was in physical rehab talking about being in rehab! I'm glad it worked out.
WCT: Is there anything for LGBTQ+ audiences in the show?
MG: Me. I am Barb, the therapista former heroin addict [who is] married to a woman with children. My character had a husband when she was denying who she was. That led to drug use.
WCT: I interviewed two of your castmates from Little House for their books separately and Alison Arngrim, who played Nellie Olsen, joked about Melissa Sue Anderson, who played Mary, not having many gay friends.
MG: That is so funny, and I can echo that statement. Melissa Sue probably doesn't know many gay people.
WCT: Alison made me wear the Nellie wig when she was in town.
MG: Been there, done that!
WCT: Talk about being an out actor, Dan.
DB:I was never in. I wrote a one-man show, The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me, [that] everyone considers it my coming out. I did it in LA, took it to Broadway and toured it around while I was doing Bulldog on Frasier. The juxtaposition of those two things was funny.
I never gave it much thought. I was very proud to be a part of HRC [Human Rights Campaign] and National Coming Out Day. It was a time when many had not come out yet, like Ellen DeGeneres or Rosie O'Donnell.
WCT: Your [Frasier] co-star John Mahoney never came out publicly because he was private.
DB: Right. David Hyde Pierce was private about other things, such as his family, but not about being gay.
I was most proud about my one-man show with just processing what it meant to be gay at that time. I had a critic character in the show that said all the contrary things in our heads such as, "What if we are all damaged goods?"
WCT: Did you hear from lesbian fans about your character on Little House, Melissa?
MG: Yesa lot of "first crushes!" The real Laura Ingalls Wilder and her husband, Almanzo Wilder, had a daughter named Rose. She was a trailblazer and war correspondent at the turn of the century. She made more money than most men, divorced, smoked, wore pants and traveled the world with her female companion. Laura was not happy [when] her upstart, bisexual flapper daughter came home with her partner at first. The two of them eventually came together to create the Little Town on the Prairie books. Rose was not an author but suggested making it nine stories. Rose went on to form the Libertarian Party, which was a completely different thing back then. At the time, it meant someone that wasn't into Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. Now the political right has taken ownership of the Little House stories, by and large. Sarah Palin said the Little House on the Prairie books were the only thing she read. I'm glad she read something!
These two women were so ahead of their time. The Koch brothers went to the school that Rose and Laura established together. That brings us back to this story of sobriety and how everything is interconnected. It has been the last few years that we have been silenced politically with our opinions and lockdown happened. We have to change that.
DB: Everything has to be relearned. Coming back to the theater and art is so important to this country. There is the temptation for despair, but an opportunity for excitement as well. It is a very exciting, human story. We are discovering how things are different now with stage work and comedy. We get to work with beautiful actors getting into it again.
WCT: A lot of Chicago actors, I might add…
DB: There are all so great. I have to tell you, Melissa. My teacher in third grade was reading Little House in the Big Woods when Kennedy was assassinated. It is so imprinted in my mind.
WCT: I was a '70s kid and adopted so I identified with the character Albert on Little House.
MG: Michael Landon was tight with the family of Eleanor and Ray Muscatele, who had a son named Albert [who] was killed by a drunk driver while riding his bicycle at age 18. Michael created the character as an homage to that Albert. Michael turned to me once and said, "This character is also for you, my little adoptee."
DB: That is so sweet!
WCT: Thank you for sharing that, Melissa. What is everyone working on next?
DB: I've got writing that I am working on with poetry and a children's book. This show is the main thing. It is all-consuming!
MG: I just finished my fourth book and it will be out in May. It is called Back to the Prairie: A Home Remade, A Life Rediscovered. It is another autobiography. The focus is the last 10 years where I go back to all the things I portrayed and learned on the Little House show. In the last few years, I've created a garden on my farm and a chicken coop. I also learned to knit. As Laura Ingalls would say, "It is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all."
When Harry Met Rehab begins previews at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., on Wed., Nov. 24, and officially premieres Sunday, Dec. 5. Tickets for performancestaking place through Jan. 30, 2022can be found at GreenhouseTheater.org and WhenHarryMetRehab.com .