Before alcoholism was seen as a disease, one man decided that the best way to get a drunk off the booze was to have him talk to another drunk. The camaraderie and that empathetic, shared experience worked, and the organization Alcoholics Anonymous was born.
The new production of “Bill W. and Dr. Bob,” which opens at Center Stage this Thursday, drops us right into those early days in 1934, where the two men keep each other sober, helped over the course of the play by their respective wives.
Though written in 1990 by psychiatrist-cum-playwright Stephen Bergman, the play has taken off into the public consciousness since opening in 2007 off Broadway at New World Stages, where it ran for 132 performances. It calls on two steady and brave performances from its leads. As Bill Wilson, the alcoholic stockbroker who hits rock bottom after the Wall Street crash, Brian Harwell comes bearing a résumé featuring years of work in Santa Barbara City College, Genesis West, Rubicon and Circle Bar B companies. Opposite him is Tim Whitcomb, playing fellow alcoholic and surgeon Dr. Bob Smith, who, according to the legend, received Wilson’s desperate call for help at random.
Just as there would not be AA without the two men, there wouldn’t be Friday’s opening night without Alison, Whitcomb’s wife, who co-produces under the name Happy Destiny Productions.
After retiring — Whitcomb worked at Kinko’s for years and some nonprofits — Alison got him to return to City College.
“She said, you better find something to do,” he says, ” ‘You better get out of the house.’ ”
Acting classes led to a part in DIJO’s production of “12 Angry Men,” where he met Harwell. It wasn’t long until Whitcomb was pitching “Bill W.” to Harwell, having seen the show 15 or so years previous. He was going to produce and star alongside Harwell.
“Well, you know how theater works in this town,” laughs Harwell, with a dash of snark. “I said ‘yeah, sure, I’d love to, that’ll happen.’ ”
But Whitcomb persevered.
“Tim did his legwork and homework and talked to independent producers,” Harwell says. “He was checking things off the list and it became apparent he was actually going to do it.”
“If I hadn’t got him on board,” says Whitcomb of Harwell, “I don’t know if I would have done it.”
Rounding out the cast is Jenna Scanlon, who plays Bill’s wife Lois, and Kathy Marden, who plays Anne Smith.
“The biggest surprise for me,” says Harwell, “when you have a historical figure, is that they’ve been canonized, but Bill had an enormous ego. And God bless him, that’s the kind of thing that gets things done.” In private, Harwell is not the most egotistical person.
“But I had a background in sales — in a past life — so that’s something I’ve had to plumb.”
Director Ann Dusenberry and Harwell have known each other for years, but have never worked together. Whitcomb and Harwell live close enough that they walk home together from rehearsals, chewing over the scenes and the characters even when official time is done.
All productions contain the disclaimer: “Performance of this work does not imply affiliation with nor approval or endorsement from Alcoholics Anonymous World Services Inc.” However, AA probably won’t mind. The Whitcombs also plan a performance for an audience of several local recovery houses.
The end of this run is not the end for Whitcomb’s new career as actor and producer. “I’ve already reserved the same time slot for next year,” he says.
‘BILL W. AND DR. BOB’
When: 8 p.m. Thursday and April 28
Where: Center Stage Theater, Paseo Nuevo
Cost: $15 to $20
Information: (805) 963-0408, centerstagetheater.org