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updated: 12/20/2011 6:51 PM

'Chinglish' stars got their start in the suburbs

2 suburban natives only Americans in Broadway's 'Chinglish'

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  • Gary Wilmes, right, a Maine East High School alumnus, plays the lead role of American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh in the Broadway show "Chinglish."

      Gary Wilmes, right, a Maine East High School alumnus, plays the lead role of American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh in the Broadway show "Chinglish."
    Photo by Michael McCabe

  • South Barrington native Christine Lin, center, plays the role of Miss Zhao in "Chinglish," a popular Broadway show that just finished a run at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. She now is playing the role in the New York production.

      South Barrington native Christine Lin, center, plays the role of Miss Zhao in "Chinglish," a popular Broadway show that just finished a run at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. She now is playing the role in the New York production.
    courtesy of Goodman Theatre

  • Gary Wilmes, an alumnus of Maine East High School, stars in the hit Broadway show, "Chinglish."

      Gary Wilmes, an alumnus of Maine East High School, stars in the hit Broadway show, "Chinglish."
    Photo by Michael McCabe

  • Suburban native Gary Wilmes, second from left, is now starring in the hit Broadway show "Chinglish."

      Suburban native Gary Wilmes, second from left, is now starring in the hit Broadway show "Chinglish."
    Photo by Michael McCabe

  • From left to right, Johnny Wu, Angela Lin, South Barrington native Christine Lin, Park Ridge native Gary Wilmes and Jennifer Lim perform in the Broadway show "Chinglish."

      From left to right, Johnny Wu, Angela Lin, South Barrington native Christine Lin, Park Ridge native Gary Wilmes and Jennifer Lim perform in the Broadway show "Chinglish."
    Photo by Michael McCabe

  • Barrington High School alumnus Christine Lin plays Chinese translator "Miss Zhao" in the Broadway show "Chinglish," which just finished a run at Chicago's Goodman Theatre and is now being stage on Broadway in New York.

      Barrington High School alumnus Christine Lin plays Chinese translator "Miss Zhao" in the Broadway show "Chinglish," which just finished a run at Chicago's Goodman Theatre and is now being stage on Broadway in New York.
    courtesy of Goodman Theatre

  • Video: 'Chinglish' video montage

 

The cast of the Broadway hit "Chinglish" features just two Americans, and both happen to be from the Northwest suburbs.

Gary Wilmes of Park Ridge plays the lead role of American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh, and Christine Lin of South Barrington plays translator Miss Zhao in the wildly successful comedy now playing on Broadway in New York, after a long run in Chicago.

Both Wilmes and Lin said they caught the acting bug while performing on their high school stages.

Wilmes had been living in LaGrange and attending Lyons Township High School, which in the mid-1980s didn't have a theater program. He described it as "serendipitous" that his family moved to Park Ridge his junior year so he could spend two years onstage at Maine East High School.

"We did five shows a year. We had a big auditorium. ... It was a really great place to be a performer," he said, recalling his first job raising and lowering the curtain on "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown."

"I was so thrilled to be doing everything," he said. "I was so excited to get through the day, so I could get to the after-school part."

Quickly rising up the ranks, Wilmes got the lead in the school's production of Neil Simon's "Hotel Suite" and was voted "Most Talented" by the Class of 1986. He continued acting at Illinois State University, where he connected with many actors from the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, which is where his post-college acting career began.

Lin had a similar experience at Barrington High School, where she did everything from stage manager to assistant director on shows like "Fiddler on the Roof" and "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe."

Unlike Wilmes, though, Lin didn't pursue acting after graduation.

"I thought performing in shows and acting was something on the side that I liked to do," she said.

Instead, Lin went to Duke University, earned an engineering degree and quickly landed a good job at Abbott Laboratories. But the stage kept pulling her back. She decided to enroll in an after-work acting class at Act One Studios in Chicago, which led her to land the lead in "Cinderella" in the PM&L Theatre in Antioch and a starring role in "The Vagina Monologues" at College of Lake County.

Lin's parents, however, were less than excited about her idea to quit her engineering job and pursue acting and singing as a career.

"My mom was, like, 'You want to do what?' But I think when she saw me performing in Cinderella, she knew," Lin said. "It's been a slow and steady kind of push. Being in 'Chinglish' was probably my big break."

Wilmes' big break didn't come until age 35, when he won an Obie Award, recognizing work in off-Broadway productions, for his role in "Red Light Winter," a play by Joliet native Adam Rapp. That led to great opportunities all over the world, onstage, TV and in movies. He had a role in the movie "Salt," which co-starred Angelina Jolie, and he played opposite Hilary Swank in the film "Birds of America."

Wilmes, 43, also has appeared on dozens of TV shows, including guest-starring roles in "Private Practice," "CSI," "Nurse Jackie" and regular appearances on the Comedy Central network and "Late Night with Conan O'Brien."

In a full-circle moment, Wilmes said the retired head of Maine East's fine arts program, David Jeffers, came to see him perform in "Chinglish" in New York earlier this month.

Looking ahead, Wilmes said he's not sure if his future will be onstage or on screen. His immediate plans are to star in "Gatz," a theater production in which performers read the entire "The Great Gatsby" onstage.

"Comedy is always fun to do, but as an actor, it's not up to you," he said.

As for Lin, 30, she's hoping "Chinglish" is the first of many Broadway shows in her future.

"It's been fun," she said. "And there are just so many opportunities."

-- Jamie Sotonoff

• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for suburban people in showbiz. If you know of someone who would make a good feature, send a note to dgire@dailyherald.com and jsotonoff@dailyherald.com

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