The year was 1935. Prohibition’s attempts at stamping out alcoholism by force had failed, but two men discovered that simply sitting down and opening up to each other could help them stop drinking. The men were Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, whose story is now told in Bill W. and Dr. Bob, a play written by the husband-and-wife team of Samuel Shem and Janet Surrey and currently at San Jose Repertory Theater in its first West Coast run.

The events will be familiar to some. Bill (Ray Chambers) and Bob (Robert Sicular) meet in Akron, Ohio, help each other sober up and then seek out other alcoholics to help. They have little luck at first, but they find that in tying to help others, they stay sober themselves. The play also covers their early involvement with the Oxford Group, a Christian movement that laid some of the groundwork for AA, but also showed Bill and Bob what not to do—namely, not to preach at their fellow alcoholics but rather to “take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth.”

This might sound like fodder for a syrupy inspirational story, but Bill W. and Dr. Bob takes a very honest tack, portraying its two heroes as regular men rather than saints. The play also possesses an unexpectedly sly sense of humor, while at the same time treating with appropriate seriousness the subject of alcoholism—a fact of which we are reminded by the monolithic backdrop of glowing booze bottles.

Chambers and Sicular work well together, with contrasting yet complementary performances: Bill, the slick businessman with a flair for salesmanship, “a man who could talk a dog off a meat truck,” and Bob, the older, more down-to-earth surgeon. Carrie Paff and Kandis Chappell play Bill’s and Bob’s long-suffering wives, Lois and Anne, who look upon their husbands’ project with bemused skepticism, though they eventually form a support group of their own (in real life, Lois Wilson went on to found Al-Anon, a network for the loved ones of alcoholics). Cindy Goldfield and Mike Ryan, meanwhile, do a decent job of fleshing out all the minor characters.

Though not exactly a life-changing experience, Bill W. and Dr. Bob is a shrewd, funny, moving piece of theater that is well worth seeing.

Bill W. and Dr. Bob runs through July 15 at San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $29-$74. Info at 408.367.7255 and