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With  “Bill W. and Dr Bob”
 S. J. Rep closes its season with a Winner play

By Iride Aparicio

Photos by Kevin Berne

Bill W and Dr Bob 1

Actor Ray Chambers as Bill Wilson

“Hello, I am Bill and I am an alcoholic."

SAN JOSÉ, CAThose words opened the West Coast Premiere of the docu-drama Bill W. and Dr. Bob, an insightful moving story inspired by the two men who founded Alcoholics Anonymous, an institution where the central core of its teaching  is: to take life, one day at a time.

The drama was co-authored  by  Samuel Shem the pen name for Stephen Bergman, a doctor novelist, playwright and activist who is described by the press as “the most important writer ever to focus on the lives of doctors and the world of medicine,” and his wife, Janet Surrey,  a clinical psychologist, author,  Buddhist teacher and the founder of the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at Wellesley.

The play begins with stock broker Bill Griffith Wilson, better known as Bill W. (Ray Chambers) standing stage right, admitting to the audience  that he is an alcoholic ( To admit one's powerless over alcohol is the first requirement in the Twelve steps program of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
He then tells us that his grandfather was also an alcoholic who owned Mount Aeolus Inn and Tavern, but that after going through a conversion, he never drank again.

What Bill hides from the audience, at this time, is that as a kid he was abandoned with his sisters at his maternal grandparents home after his father left on a business trip and never returned and that his mother left the house shortly after to go to school to study osteopathic medicine. Bill shows the audience his determination when he relates us that as a boy he worked for months to design and carve the “perfect  boomerang” and his ability to communicate with others.

Bill W. became an alcoholic while serving in the Vermont Guard. The young officers were invited to dinner by the locals in Massachusetts and in one of those dinners he had his first drink: a glass of beer. Soon after, Bill graduated to cocktails which made him feel liberated from his shyness. “I had found the elixir of life.” he says. After that drinking became his past time.

He married and, after his military service, returned with his wife Louis Burnham (Carrie Paff) to live  in New York City.  He continued drinking. He failed to graduate from Law school because he was too drunk to pick up his diploma.

Bill W. and Dr. Bob 2As he stands next to Bill on the stage, Robert Holbrook Smith, (Robert Sicular, pictured on the left) has also an story to share with us.

Dr. Bob, as he is called, was an American physician and surgeon.  He was born in St. Johnsbury, Vermont and raised in a house so religious that he was forced to attend religious services four times a week. The result was so disastrous for the boy, that he was determined never to set foot in a church again when he grew up.

He began drinking in college and because he never had headaches when he was drunk, he deluded himself into believing that he was not an alcoholic.

After graduating from Dartmouth College in l902,  selling hardware in Boston, Chicago an Montreal, he continue drinking. He then returned to school to study medicine. By this time his drinking caused him to miss classes often. At the end, he had to leave school but he returned, passed all his courses and transferred to Rush Medical College where his alcoholism worsened.

After graduation he became a hospital intern, opened his own office in Akron Ohio and specialized in colorectal surgery. He continued drinking.
He married Anne (Carrie Paff)  had children and for 17 years his life revolved around how to subvert his wife’s efforts to stop his drinking and how to obtain the alcohol he craved.

In short vignettes, Bill W. and Dr. Bob the play, unravels different incidents in the lives of these two men as they turn into alcoholics. In one of them we see  Bill, (Chambers) drunk inside the bar forcing a waitress to dance with him.  He gets into a fight with another customer and after being beaten by the other man he ends into a  hospital for alcoholics.

Bill W. and Dr. Bob 3Being hospitalized turns out to be the first of many events that lead him into a revelation. He is visited by Ebby Thatcher (Mike Ryan, standing on the R of the photograph) a school friend who had battled alcoholism all his life frequently landing in mental hospitals and even jail. During their conversation, Ebby introduces Bill (Chambers, pictured laying on the bed) to the Oxford Group’s principles, that later on will be the initial principles of AA. The basic one: the importance of one alcoholic talking to another. But to Bill, perhaps the most important point in their conversation was Ebby himself, completely sober demonstrating that Alcoholism could be cured by a “genuine conversion.”

The story continues. In a separate short scenes we see Dr. Bob (Sicular) hiding bottles under his chairs’ cushions, taking pills as Anne (Kandis chapel) his wife prays and worries, not only for her husband, but for the patients  Dr. Bob is operating in the hospital this day completely inebriated. In others we observe the slow desintegration of Bill's marriage.

Both Bill and Dr. Bob need a miracle to heal them. Anne,(Chappell) Bob’s wife, knows it, so she had been tapping into a Higher Power since the night of January l933 when she attended a lecture by Frank Buchanan, the founder of the Oxford Group.

The group was founded by Buchanan, a Christian missionary who had a conversion experience. The group started in l921 as group of people who desire to follow a way of life. It was first called A First Century Christian Fellowship  but in l931 its name was chanced to the Oxford Group.   The group consisted of people from all walks of life who had surrendered their lives to God, who they refer as "The Higher Power".  Their goal was simply to lead a spiritual life and carry their message to others so that they could do the same. The group lived by four absolutes; 1) They shared their sins with one another. 2) They surrender their lives to God. 3) They made restitution to those who have hurt them. 4) They listen for God’s guidance. Anne began their way of life.

By then Bill W. (Chambers) whose marriage to Lois (Carrie Paff) was beginning to fall apart, in one of the most moving scenes of the play, had experienced a "miracle" when laying helpless in a hospital bed pleading God for help. Shortly after that, another "miracle" happened to him on the night when again he was starting to crave for alcohol passing a bar. But instead of starting drinking he decided to call an Episcopalian church and ask the deacon to refers him to other alcoholics so he could talk with them because he needed help from himself

The other alcoholic he was referred to on that night was Dr. Bob. The two men met; one was a medical doctor, the other a broker and salesman. Their talks continued: one knew how to heal people's bodies, the broker,  how to sell ideas. By combining what they had learned in their careers and all their experiences and struggles as alcoholics. both men designed AA's “Twelve steps.”

In his direction of Bill W. and Dr. Bob, award-winning actor and director Richard Seer,  managed to give the audience a true-to life experience of the struggles of the alcoholic men, and the suffering his vice inflicts on their families. On the Saturday, after press opening night, all the actors played their role with such veracity, that their acting appear to be reality. Special credit ought to be given to Dr. Bob, (Sicular) for his playing a role requiring various bouts of drinking one of them with him at the verge of Delirium tremens, to Anne (Kandis Chappell) his wife, and to Bill W. (Chambers) Their acting was superb.

On our part, as we, the audience, observed the degradation of the characters sinking little by little into the abysm of their vice, and them climb up the 12 steps that not only helped them fight their demonds but to use their experience to help other alcoholics, we also learned a lesson: there is power in the will of men and tremendous power in prayer.                                                   

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L-R Ray Chambers as Bill, Mike Ryan as an alcoholic and Robert Sicular as Dr. Bob

With Bill W. and Dr. Bob.  San José Rep closed its 2011-2012season with a winning play.

For tickets Call (408) 367-7255  or go online at www.sjrep.com