David Rabe retools ‘Good for Otto’ for world premiere at Gift Theatre

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A short piece, originally created for a fundraiser, evolving years later into a world premiere at a local theater, wouldn’t usually be a big deal. But when the playwright is Tony Award-winner David Rabe and the theater is The Gift Theatre, one of Chicago’s smallest (and accomplished) tiny storefront venues, it’s a pairing hard to ignore.

Rabe of course is known for such works as “Sticks and Bones” (the Tony winner), “Streamers” and “Hurlyburly,” and The Gift has staged critically acclaimed productions of the latter two. Both playwright and Gift artistic director Michael Patrick Thornton agree the partnership on the new play was very organic.

‘GOOD FOR OTTO’ When: To Nov. 22 Where: Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Tickets: $20-$35 Info: (773) 283-7071; thegifttheatre.org

Thornton first approached Rabe about writing a 10-minute play for “Ten,” the short play celebration that begins each Gift season. Rabe has since written several short pieces, one of which was a recycled scene from “Good for Otto,” a play he had penned in 1999 for a fundraiser at the Northwest Center for Family Service and Mental Health near his home in Lakeville, Conn.

“I long harbored the notion that I could make a real play of it,” Rabe says. “It had certain dramatic qualities but I had rushed it and it needed more work.”

Years went by and Rabe never quite found the impetus to expand and polish the play. But now impressed with Thornton and Gift, he asked if the company would do a reading. One thing led to another and Rabe spent three weeks in August working on the play with Thornton and the cast of 15, one of Gift’s largest.

“David was kind of waiting for someone to prod him down that road,” Thornton says with a laugh. “This whole process has been like getting to play ball with Michael Jordan every single day.”

“Good for Otto” was inspired by the book, “Undoing Depression: What Therapy Doesn’t Teach You and Medication Can’t Give You” by psychotherapist Richard O’Connor.

Set in a small Connecticut town, “Good for Otto,” follows a psychologist as he attempts to help the patients who come to the health center he runs.

Rabe has been in therapy “on and off” and says he has “a great respect for it as a tool for modifying and adjusting your point of view.” While writing, he was inspired by certain case histories in the book but let his imagination take over.

Brittany Burch and Caroline Heffernan in The Gift Theatre’s world premiere of “Good For Otto.” | Photo credit, Claire Demos

Brittany Burch and Caroline Heffernan in The Gift Theatre’s world premiere of “Good For Otto.” | Photo credit, Claire Demos

A week or so into his Chicago visit, Rabe realized he had a whole new set of ideas on which to build a stronger narrative. During his stay, most days were spent in the hotel writing, and nights at the theater rehearsing. At one point, Thornton says Rabe went into the Gift’s tiny box office and came out 40 minutes later with a new opening for scene two.

“I had days in the hotel that were quite joyous and challenging and scary,” Rabe says with a laugh. “I was like a mad scientist. The ideas just kept coming.”

Thornton admits the experience has been “bizarre and surreal” but in a very good way. He determined early on to treat Rabe like he would any other playwright the company works with — hard work, hard questions, no kowtowing.

“I think David really appreciated that but I don’t think he expected to work as hard as he ended up doing,” Thornton says with a laugh.

Rabe says the experience has taken him back to his college days at Villanova where he wrote drafts of many of his early plays.

“Like this, it was a very, very creative environment,” Rabe recalls. “Frankly, I did some of my best work there, and this experience has a similar feel. There’s an intelligence and passion for the work that is inspiring. Plus there’s a wonderful sense that spills over from Michael and the company that we are on a big adventure together.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.

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