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The next act

With his play, Visions, a Rotarian has turned his addiction into art and provided new roles for former addicts.

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In the winter of 1989, Robert Lo Bue experienced an awakening: He wanted to join the theater.

Lo Bue was working on the assembly line at an automotive plant. Nearing 40, he had no acting experience to speak of and a long history of drug and alcohol abuse. No matter. He auditioned for a production of The Passion Play near his home in Cliffside Park, New Jersey, and landed the part of Young James the Apostle.

His Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor was not pleased. "He said, 'No way. You got a wife in recovery and you just came out of rehab and you got a baby daughter. Your son is in counseling from both of you using. Your plate is full,'" Lo Bue recalled in his booming Jersey brogue. "I said, 'What do you mean? I want this. I need this!' He just kept screaming, 'Your plate is full!'"

Lo Bue heeded the warning and bided his time. A year later, he landed his first role. "I came out on stage in a black ski mask and stabbed someone," he says. "That was it. I must have invited 40 people to that production." This troupe, the Bergen County Players, encouraged members to create their own material. Lo Bue was no more a writer than an actor. But he knew he had a story to tell — the story of addiction. At its heart was an account of Lo Bue's lowest moment.

"I was in the county jail, with assault charges pending. A bunch of inmates went after the biggest guy in our cell and tried to shove his head in the toilet. When they were done with him, they were gonna do me." Lo Bue got on his knees and prayed for help. "Then ... something happened. I felt a great surrendering inside me." Unexpectedly, the situation calmed. He was able to sleep.

This episode became the basic template of Visions: a series of raw, unfiltered vignettes showing addicts hitting bottom and finding grace. "The play is for people in the early stages of recovery," Lo Bue, seated at the kitchen table of his current home in Teaneck, explained. "They don't have the greatest attention spans, so you've got to show them what they know: those bottoms. Boom, boom, boom."

When Lo Bue brought the play to his and other theater groups, they told him, "No way! This is too harsh, too real." But the 71-year-old Rotarian is nothing if not indomitable, and eventually an acquaintance from Narcotics Anonymous recognized its potential and arranged a venue. Lo Bue now had five months to stage an actual production of Visions. "I started casting people from the AA meetings," he says. "'You'd make a good hooker! You're the bum!' I got five different churches to loan me rehearsal space."

Robert Lo Bue staged the first performance of Visions in September 1991 at a drug treatment facility.

Image credit: Courtesy of Robert Lo Bue

In September 1991, Visions debuted at Integrity House, a drug treatment facility in Secaucus. "Afterwards, this big guy came up to me; he was weeping like a baby," Lo Bue says. "Women who had lost their kids to addiction were hugging us. From that moment on, I realized that this play was the gift that I had to give the world."

Of course, delivering the gift of live theater can be a precarious financial proposition, especially if you insist, as Lo Bue does, on never charging for tickets. This is where his unlikely collaboration with Rotary began. In 2002, as part of National Recovery Month, he was invited to Washington, D.C., to stage the play for an audience that included members of Congress. The catch was he had to raise the money to transport his cast and crew of 22.

As he struggled to come up with the funds, Lo Bue's mind traveled back to his childhood, when members of a local Rotary club would visit his elementary school. On a whim, he contacted the Rotary Club of Maywood, New Jersey, and was astonished when they helped underwrite the trip. "I never did forget that," he says.

When COVID-19 struck in early 2020, Visions went on an indefinite hiatus. "I was getting cabin fever real bad," Lo Bue said. "I started thinking about Rotary again, and how welcoming they had been. So I joined the nearby Rotary Club of Fort Lee."

He was amazed by the generosity of the members. "They made me feel welcomed and needed. It filled that emptiness inside me." The club gave Lo Bue an outlet for his altruism and a way to repay his debt to Rotary. "I was able to provide lighting for a few different events. That felt great. I needed to give back." Lo Bue says his reconnection with Rotary is a good fit. "I'm a little rough around the edges, but we've got the same mindset: It's about getting out into the world and being of service. Service Above Self."

In his three decades as a director, Lo Bue has staged Visions hundreds of times. He has won a host of awards, including a Points of Light award for volunteer service, and traveled the country recruiting and training 12 different casts.

"Most of my people are actors," he said. "But they've all been in the trenches of addictions. They've all hit their own bottoms. You'll see."

Robert Lo Bue stands with cast members from the jail scene during an off-Broadway performance of the play in 2006.

Image credit: Courtesy of Robert Lo Bue

For Mary F. (like others in this story, she asked that her last name not be used), the bottom came on the night she prayed for God to end her life. She says, "The sick part about that was I didn't think my kids would get along without me. So I said, 'Please let my kids come with me.' I mean, that's crazy stuff." Her suicidal thoughts led her into recovery two decades ago, where she met Lo Bue.

In Visions, Mary plays the wife in an abusive marriage opposite her second husband, Joe, who is also in recovery. Like other veteran performers, Mary speaks at a lot of rehab facilities, where she has encountered young mothers. "I can see in their faces that they want to break free of the drinking and drugs," she says. "I honestly believe God saved my life so I can carry this message."

When Nina S. joined the cast, her role was familiar. "Bob cast me as Monique, the hooker," Nina noted with a sly smile. "Which makes sense because I've worked in that field."

Not that Nina has ever felt typecast. The 61-year-old retiree has played half a dozen roles in her two years with Visions. She's been a cop, an addict trying to buy drugs, an abused wife, and a doctor. Nina attributes her range to the fact that she has been acting for most of her life. "You gotta be able to act to walk the streets because you're scared all the time," she says. "But you gotta pretend like you're so tough that you can handle any situation, even when you can't."

During her years of addiction, Nina suffered a harrowing sexual assault and tested HIV-positive. But for her, the bottom was the Christmas when she abandoned her three young children to buy dope. "I told them, 'I'm gonna be back. I'll be back. I'll be back.' I didn't come back."

Nina has been clean for 26 years, and acting in Visions has been an integral part of her recovery process. "When we do the play, I always identify with Monique, because she tests HIV-positive too," Nina says. "But then, at the end, you see her in the circle at a recovery meeting, trying to get clean."

  1. During her two years in Visions, Nina S. has played six different roles.

  2. For Mike S., his decision to join Visions marked the true beginning of his sobriety.

  3. Her suicidal thoughts led Mary F. into recovery two decades ago.

Mike S. still remembers when he met Lo Bue, after peeking in on a Visions rehearsal after a meeting. "It was like watching my life. Bob saw me there and he said, 'Hey, you wanna help out?' I started with moving equipment. Then somebody wouldn't show up and all of a sudden I found myself in the play." Talk to enough of the actors and you realize that this method of recruiting is something of a Lo Bue trademark.

Mike hit his bottom three decades ago: "I was facing 10 years in jail, so strung out I looked like someone with stage 4 cancer. I called my dad, who had always bailed me out before, and he said, 'Mike, I'd rather throw my money in the garbage than get you out.' I could hear my sister screaming in the background, 'Leave him in there, he needs rehab!' They were 100 percent right."

It's no coincidence that Mike's decision to join Visions marked the true beginning of his sobriety. "Look," he says, "I'm not a great actor. But all the parts I play are me anyway. I was a drug dealer. I was in jail. It just breaks me down when I watch the scenes, and I've been watching them for 27 years now. Even when I just think about it — " Mike paused. He was tearing up. "I've watched grown men in jail cry when we perform. And when I leave the stage, I feel like a million dollars. No drug ever did that for me."

After the potluck, Lo Bue led a convoy to a nearby church for rehearsal. For the next two hours, he led his cast through a brisk rehearsal of a dozen scenes. There were plenty of flubbed lines and missed cues, but there were also moments of transcendent power.

Annie, the newest member of the cast, was playing an addict in the throes of withdrawal. Annie is a naturally shy person, but the role brought out a swaggering menace in her as she harangued passersby for money. When one castigated her, she roared, "Whattaya mean, 'Get a job?' So I can be like you? You work. You come home. You watch TV. You think that's living? I'd rather be dead. You're a dead man walking and you don't even know it." Her voice hit her final line in an anguished crescendo that was met with a burst of applause from fellow cast members.

Lo Bue stood by, nodding. "I've got an idea of what I want to see from a scene, but the actors always bring a piece of themselves to the role. That's the part where it gets exciting."

Lo Bue was especially focused on Jimmy, a 77-year-old who was playing a role known as the Tramp. Over the course of the play, the Tramp transforms from a neatly attired career man to a homeless alcoholic swaddled in rags, and experiences what has become a recurring theme in Lo Bue's world: a moment of awakening that brings him into recovery. Jimmy played the moment to the hilt. He caterwauled, "I don't have to live this way anymore!"

"I don't think he's angry," Lo Bue said gently. "I think he's bummed out."

Jimmy delivered the line again, this time in a more subdued tone. "Better," Lo Bue said.

The people who help bring Visions to life (clockwise from top left): Annie, Mary F., Jimmy, Nate, Robert Lo Bue, Nina S., Mike S.

The actors in Lo Bue's theater all share his sense of mission.

Kimberly, who joined the troupe three years ago, had struggled to find her footing in recovery for years. She blew off two college scholarships and later watched two friends die of their addictions. "Everywhere I went, alcoholism just followed me," the interior designer explained. "Because recovery isn't just about going sober. For it to stick, you need a sense of service and unity. That's what I got when I joined this play. We built this family, where the goal is to carry the message to the next suffering addict."

It's this sense of Service Above Self that led Lo Bue to pen Visions all those years ago. "I could have just kept going to the recovery rooms and telling my story," he says. "I chose a different path. Like, I know I've done a lot of crappy things in my life, but I was also able to build this little world where the cast and crew can heal themselves and help heal the world."

Steve Almond's 12th book, the novel All the Secrets of the World, was published in May.

This story originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of Rotary magazine.

Want to help reduce the problem of addiction? Consider joining the Rotary Action Group for Addiction Prevention.