Bill W. and Dr. Bob: Docudrama at San Jose Rep

(Right) (r to l) Bill Wilson (Ray Chambers) makes his surrender while his long-time friend Ebby (Mike Ryan) promises to pray for him. (Top) (l to r) Bill Wilson (Ray Chambers) and Dr. Bob Smith (Robert Sicular) share how they found sobriety with fellow drunk, (center) Billy Dotson (Mike Ryan), (Above Left) (l to r) Lois Wilson (Carrie Paff), Hen Dotson (Cindy Goldfield), and Anne Smith (Kandis Chappell) share their troubles on living with an alcoholic in what is now known as the first Al Anon meeting in San Jose Rep's West Coast premiere of Bill W. and Dr. Bob.

Photo: Kevin Berne

Bill W. and Dr. Bob: Docudrama. By Samuel Shem and Janet Surre. Directed by Richard Seer. San Jose Repertory Theatre. 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. 408) 367-7255. Through July 21, 2012.

At dinner a few days before going to San Jose Rep to see the doccudrama Bill W. and Dr. Bob it was mentioned that the play dealt with the beginning of what was to become Alcoholic Anonymous (AA). “Oh, you’re going to see Bill,” said one of the diners. It seems that “going to see Bill” was (is?) a circumlocution for attending an AA meeting. This reviewer was unaware of that but the audience at a Saturday matinee certainly did.

After the lights dim and a spotlight hits Ray Chambers on center-right stage and says in a matter-of-fact manner “I’m Bill W. and I am an alcoholic”, the audience responsed with “HI, Bill.” This was followed by similar response to Robert Sicular’s “I’m Dr. Bob an alcoholic. Good to be here sober.” After that unostentatious beginning our two main characters take us back into time of the Depression to give us a lesson of the damaging repercussions of alcoholism. It is not a pretty presentation and at times a bit tedious. However, the brilliant staging (Robin Sanford Roberts) direction (Richard Seer) and acting (more about that later) and overall production values created stimulating theater.

In 1935 Bill Wilson’s alcoholism ended his mercurial career on Wall Street with devastating effects on his marriage. He had tried to break the vicious cycle of one drink leading to others through religion with only minimal success. One day while hospitalized he is awakened by a flash of light and underwent a spiritual conversion breaking the cycle of drinking to access. Being a strong willed egotistical person he began a crusade attempting to convert others in New York City. One day while in Akron, Ohio he found himself craving drink and his solution to his problem was try to find another drunk to help him through his crisis. After an unsuccessful number of telephone calls he latches on to Dr. Bob an alcoholic surgeon who often went to surgery with a hangover. This chance meeting was to become to beginning of AA although the press release notes states the play “does not imply affiliation with or endorsement from Alcoholics Anonymous World International Service, Inc.”

The play was written by the married therapists Samuel Shem and Janet Surrey who teach at Harvard and other venues. He is a noted doctor, novelist and activist and she a clinical psychologist dealing with women’s relational psychology, addiction and spirituality. With such backgrounds one would expect a bit of proselytizing and that we do get.

After the initial monologues, act one becomes a litany of how and sometimes why the protagonists have ended up as alcoholics. We are introduced to the much suffering wives Lois Williams (Carrie Paff) and Anne Smith (Kandis Chappell) and 16 different characters all played by Cindy Goldfield and Mike Ryan. Act two becomes much more interesting with the multiple short scenes allowing Goldfield and Ryan to demonstrate their acting skills with ingenious set changes that move on and off stage on carriage platforms in front of wood paneled bookshelves lined with about 500 whiskey bottles of all colors and sizes. All this is bolstered by fitting light (Trevor Norton) and sound (Paul Peterson)cues.

It is the acting that keeps our interest. Ray Chambers brings the character of Bill W. to life perfectly defining his egotism and dedication and Robert Sicular exudes the turmoil within Dr. Bob never overdoing the falling down drunken scenes. Carrie Paff and Kandis Chappell make the most of their underwritten parts giving verisimilitude to the effects of alcoholism on the wives of the afflicted. Cindy Goldfield playing the six other female roles demonstrates her versatility. Mike Ryan who gave a unidimensional performance as the lead in Aurora Theatre’s Anatole redeems himself with a his spot on changes to his 13 characters.

There is a brief implied reference to the women starting the Al Anon for women living with alcoholics. The play is bookended with the protagonists addressing the audience as individuals and as partners receiving a standing ovation. Running time is 2 hours plus a 20 minute intermission.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

Courtesy of