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‘When Harry Met Rehab’ brings new perspective to real-life chapter for veteran actress Melissa Gilbert

“The commonality of the experience is what really is the basis of what all recovery groups are at their core,” Gilbert says of the show’s storyline.

Melissa Gilbert stars as a therapist leading a group  therapy session in “When Harry Met Rehab” at the Greenhouse Theater Center.
Melissa Gilbert stars as a therapist leading a group therapy session in “When Harry Met Rehab” at the Greenhouse Theater Center.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

There was a time when award-winning actress Melissa Gilbert found herself sitting among a group of people she barely knew, baring her soul of its darkest secrets in the hopes that in doing so, she would finally be free of her personal demons.

“The people I knew who were addicted to heroin were some of the most creative, incredibly talented, fascinating, cool people I’ve ever known… most of whom have now died,” Gilbert says during a recent chat at Chicago’s Greenhouse Theater Center, discussing her time spent in real-life group therapy. “Now, I find myself going back to my experience with those people and incorporating them into this role.”

While Gilbert was quite vocal about her past battles with addiction in her 2009 New York Times bestselling memoir “Prairie Tale,” the role she is currently playing in the world premiere of “When Harry Met Rehab” essentially turns the tables on her real-life story. Gilbert stars as Barb, a rehab therapist and former addict, based loosely on the real-life struggles of Chicago sports radio personality/actor Harry Teinowitz.

“The commonality of the experience is what really is the basis of what all recovery groups are at their core,” Gilbert says of the storyline co-written by Teinowitz and playwright Spike Manton in which the main character, Harry (played by veteran TV actor/comedian Dan Butler), goes to therapy and encounters four strangers that end up providing him with a mix of friendship, honesty, and accountability.

“In that circle of chairs, we watch as people walk through their history to find that moment that may have been the genesis of why their life spiraled out of control,” Gilbert says. [Pauses] Having not only gone through the issues I went through but going through therapy for decades and winding it all back to those traumatic moments, I now find myself playing the therapist, and that is a gift for me. To watch someone trudge through their life and wake up and become the person they’ve always wanted to be… that’s a gift.”

Melissa Gilbert and Dan Butler, who co-star in “When Harry Met Rehab,” are photographed at the Greenhouse Theater Center earlier this month.
Melissa Gilbert and Dan Butler, who co-star in “When Harry Met Rehab,” are photographed at the Greenhouse Theater Center earlier this month.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

In real life, Gilbert, who is perhaps most famous for portraying Laura Ingalls Wilder on the hit 1970s-80s TV series “Little House on the Prairie,” admits she could have never been a therapist.

“I am way too much of an empath,” she says smiling. “One of the hardest things for me is to not lose myself in my emotions when I listen to them. Because when they fall apart, I can’t.”

And while the storyline of “When Harry Met Rehab” is undoubtedly entrenched in the heaviness of addiction, it also holds within it a somewhat comforting, comedic look at the pains of life.

“Some of my favorite stories from my lifetime are the stories that were about the most tragic and painful things… that I somehow found a way to laugh about,” Gilbert adds.

Enter the aforementioned Dan Butler, best-known for his role as Bob “Bulldog” Briscoe on the hit NBC sitcom “Frasier.” The actor recently got to meet Teinowicz. “I loved that he wrote a good story and there was something that compelled him to tell this story now, and that it was important to tell it through his lens and his voice box.”

“Comedians are usually the most seriously intense people who are constantly trying to come up with funny things to talk about,” continues Butler, who also played the role of Art on the ABC series “Roseanne.” “Genuine comedy is funny because I think you use it to deflect or avoid something. You’re laughing at something that you all went through that was horrendous. You have a universal connection to it. You can’t help yourself from always trying to tell a joke. ... We’re all expert liars if we want to be.”

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“No one is ever going through something that someone hasn’t been through already,” adds Gilbert. “There is a fellowship to be found in every case. There is someone to reach out to and someone who can support you and someone who’s walked the path ahead of you and someone who’s trudging up behind you, no matter what it is. The best thing we can do is come together and love each other.”

And it’s this universal connection that has always served as a vital component of live theater, a connection that all but vanished during the COVID-19 shutdown, and a connection that Gilbert and Butler agree that the world needs now more than ever.

“You shouldn’t be the same person going out of the theater that you were going in,” concludes Butler. “Something has to change. [Pauses] We’re cracking the nut of this show, and it’s a tough show. All these things are different now. I mean, what is comedy? What is drama? What is storytelling? How is it different from before? I think it takes a bit of pioneering spirit to go out and be a member of an audience right now. But I think you just have to sit down with other people… and see what happens next.”