Brave men step out from anonymity to share AA’s story

By John Lyle Belden

“My name is Bill, and I’m an alcoholic.”

This opening would be rather routine — for certain well-known but private meetings, or in shows and films about them — except that this is Bill W., a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, relating his story not only for mutual support, but also so we can understand the struggle that brought about the whole program.

In “Bill W. and Dr. Bob,” by Janet Surrey and Samuel Shem, presented by Stage Door Productions at the District Theatre, Bill (played by Kevin Caraher) is joined by Bob (Dan Flahive) as they each relate the paths their lives took them down, leading to their fateful 1935 meeting in Akron, Ohio.

Bill didn’t suddenly decide not to drink anymore, then sit down and create a 12-step system all on his own. It was a messy evolution, during which he started out feeling he didn’t need help, or didn’t deserve it. But eventually he was persuaded by an on-the-wagon friend, Ebby (Robert Webster Jr., who plays all other male roles), to get involved in the Oxford Group, a sobriety program that introduced him to reliance on a “higher power” (which doesn’t have to be the Christian God). Bill becomes an evangelist for the Oxford Group, but can’t get the drunks he rounds up for it to stay. When it’s pointed out to him that the only person he seems to be keeping sober is himself, he comes up with a radical idea. 

This play is not just about the men who started a movement; it is about the women in their lives, and their struggles, too. Bill’s wife, Lois (Afton Shepard), deals not only with being married to a drunkard, but also with financial burdens intensified by the Great Depression (Bill was a stock-market wizard, directly affected by the crash) and made no better by his sobriety as he spends all his time in unpaid charity work. Bob’s wife, Anne (Adrienne Reiswerg), is too devoted to leave him, but still driven to the edge of her tolerance by his refusal to accept help. Once the two men find each other — with the help of Akron socialite Henrietta (Karen Webster, playing all other female roles) — Anne wisely asks for Lois to join them so that the women can find support in each other as well. 

Directed by Dan Scharbrough, in this story we see the trial-and-error process, as the establishment of the organization seems to mirror the individual highs and lows of the addict on the way to sustained sobriety. Bill is easily frustrated, but Bob points out that even in the setbacks there is progress. 

The play resonated well with the packed audience at our performance, many indicating by their responses that they are familiar with the program. But this is also enlightening  — as well as entertaining and heart-warming — for those who never had the need to attend a “meeting.”

(And if you feel that something about their stories hits too close to home, you don’t have to look far for help.)

This production of “Bill W. and Dr. Bob” is presented in conjunction with The International Women’s Conference, which will be held Feb. 20-23 in Indianapolis, a four-day AA fellowship for women only. For more information, visit internationalwomensconference.org.  

Remaining performances are Friday through Sunday (Feb. 14-16) at the District, 627 Massachusetts Ave. (former TOTS site, now managed by IndyFringe). For tickets, go to www.indyfringe.org, and for company info visit “stage-door-productions” on Facebook. Out of respect for the subject matter, concessions will not offer beer or wine, but there is plenty of excellent coffee, provided by Sober Joe (www.soberjoe.com) of Bloomington.

Switch delivers deep drama of ‘Diviners’ 

By John Lyle Belden

The drama “The Diviners,” by Jim Leonard Jr., is a thoroughly Hoosier story, with Indiana setting and characters, and it premiered at Hanover College in 1980. But it plumbs deep into all of us, and it makes an excellent start for The Switch Theatre in Fishers.

In the last days of the Hoover presidency, with the nation sunk into the Great Depression, we meet a rather extraordinary boy. Buddy (Colin McCabe) is 14 but hasn’t had a bath in at least a decade, ever since nearly drowning in the river, losing his mother to the current as well as a degree of his mental capacity. His fear of water gives him such sensitivity to its presence that he became a natural “diviner,” capable of finding underground streams for wells, and feeling approaching rain even while the sky is clear. 

His father Ferris Layman (Larry Adams) and 16-year-old sister Jennie Mae (Lauren Hall) take care of him, dealing with his impulsive behavior and understanding his odd speech pattern that constantly has him talking in third person. Fellow citizens of the small town of Zion, Indiana, largely accept him as he is, including Goldie (Jean Adams) who runs the local diner and keeps plenty of root beer on hand for Buddy, and Norma Henshaw (Debbie Underwood), who runs the local dry-goods store with her daughter, Darlene (Gloria Merrell).

The neighbors, farmer Basil Bennett and his wife Luella (Dan Flahive and Ginger Home) see Buddy’s abilities as a blessing, Daniel Shock and Mason Tudor play their farmhands, Melvin and Dewey (who is sweet on Darlene). 

Into this world comes C.C. Showers (Earl Campbell), a former preacher from Kentucky who gave up his vocation to be a common laborer. He takes a job at Ferris’s mechanic shop, and takes an interest in helping Buddy. In town, Norma, being deeply religious, sees the man’s arrival as a sign that the local church will be rebuilt, and true to her steel-trap mind, will accept no other explanation.

Directed by Lori Raffel, the performances flesh out the characters well, but the focus is mainly on Buddy. McCabe embodies the role with the skill of someone much older — he is an eighth-grader, but his parents said he has been performing for years. Hall, Merrell, and Tudor also acquit themselves well. The veteran performers wear their roles like comfortable clothes. Campbell does well in spite of a script that leaves many questions about Showers unanswered — this is not his story, but it feels like there is one to be told. 

This play has gentle humor and a Waltons-like folksiness, but its still waters run deep in what is ultimately a tragic story. Performances run through Oct. 6 at The Switch, located inside the Ji-Eun Lee Music Academy, 10029 E. 126th St., Suite D, in Fishers. Get information and tickets at theswitchtheatre.com.

 

IndyFringe: Is Your Brain Still Cooking?

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

How much do you remember from your “good old days”? As people grow older, being able to retain memory is vital — and now it can win valuable prizes!

In this game show, presented by a local channel that has given up on appealing to the younger demographics, a going-nowhere actor (played by Jim Banta) is host to the titular contest, which features contestants Edmund (Dan Flahive), a retiree who keeps conversational topics on Post-it notes attached to his jacket; and Ruby Flo (Case Jacobus), a silver sinner whose hobby is being a blue-hair in blue films. She makes the most of her character’s license to say outrageous things, providing some of the biggest laughs of the show, ever frustrating the show’s producer (MaryAnne Mathews).

This is the latest by frequent IndyFringe contributor and retired Evansville journalist Garret Mathews. It is not one of his stronger scripts — at times things felt in disarray, testing Banta’s improv skills. Flahive being a talented and patient soul helps keep things anchored in his own way. Thus, this comedy is a fine example of Fringe’s function to test new material and aid the development process. Weaknesses are more than compensated by the air of nostalgia, as our contestants reach back through time and memory to tell of past places visited, things done and people loved. 

Don’t expect Tony material, but feel free to laugh, and remember — and consider for yourself: “Is Your Brain Still Cooking?” Performances are 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the District Theatre Cabaret (formerly TOTS), 627 Massachusetts Ave.

Fat Turtle @ the Fort: Go see ‘Joan’

By John Lyle Belden

Something precious has been stuck in a house for a long time.

Joan Wright was once an “author, traveler and businesswoman,” but in the three years since her husband died she has just been Joanie, a lonely woman spending her days in a bathrobe, knitting and watching the world out her back window.

But changes are coming. Her adult daughters are planning to move halfway across the country, and suddenly an old friend is in her living room, inviting her to a gathering of “the old gang” to celebrate her upcoming birthday. It’s exciting, and a bit frightening, but does it feel right?

This is the essence of the new drama, “Go Be Joan,” by Nathaniel Adams, a premiere by Fat Turtle Theatre at Theater at the Fort.

Kathy Bauchle plays Joan as a strong woman throughout – sometimes channeling that strength into her stubborn insistence on “not being a burden” by getting into nice clothes and out of the house to be among others.

Her girls each have their own issues, especially with the changes that life cast their way. Elder daughter Katherine (Afton Shepard) wears her constant nervous smile like a shield as she tries to maintain control of every situation she’s in. Her little sister Lindsie (Audrey Stonerock) has been taking care of Joan the past few years and really, really, wants their mother to move to St. Louis with them. Shepard and Stonerock swing from comaraderie to conflict and back like real siblings, as the deeper layers of the plot are revealed.

Katherine’s daughter Cara (Natalie Marchal) adds another generation to the mix, with her own quirks and concerns. She seems a bit two-dimensional and cliché at first, a selfish child preoccupied with the digital world in her smartphone, until Joan’s insistence on communicating yields to us a nice insight into Cara and her post-Millennial perspective. In return, we see the girl help her grandmother into the 21st century – which in the context of Joan’s shutting herself off from the world in recent years takes on special relevance.

Dan Flahive is neighbor and old friend John Patty, who delivers the invitation – and a mysterious wrapped gift – to Joan. He, too, lost a spouse years ago, so has a special insight into their situation. Flahive’s knack for playing a best friend you feel you’ve known and loved all your life is in full effect here. He plays it coy enough to balance the chemistry between his and Bauchle’s character deftly between platonic/agape friend and possible love-interest.

Fat Turtle artistic director Brandi Underwood directs.

This is a good start for a promising play, and an excellent opportunity for local audiences to support local art. The characters and their story touch our hearts with gentle humor and an insightful look at how we grieve and learn to go on living.

Oh, and my opening statement above refers to more than just the title character.

Performances of “Go Be Joan” run through July 28 at 8920 Otis Ave., on the grounds of Fort Benjamin Harrison in Lawrence. Get information and tickets at www.fatturtletheatre.com.