There’s no disguising the mission behind Bill W and Dr. Bob, which dramatizes the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. The show’s being presented by the non-profit Hazelden Foundation, which operates alcohol and drug addiction rehab centers. And, as the program states, it has been funded by tax-exempt donations; net proceeds are to help Hazelden support a national college tour of the play to educate young people on the dangers of binge drinking on campus and to provide patient aid scholarships.
But aside from this worthy goal, the play itself -- written by Sam Shem, a doctor, and Janet Surrey, his wife and a psychologist -- offers some two hours of affecting theatre. Both Shem and Surrey have worked for years with alcoholics and addicts, and the script resonates with their knowledge of the topic. Over the past several years, the play has seen numerous productions internationally, including one in New York in 2007. This new production, directed with theatrical acuity by Seth Gordon (associate artistic director of Repertory Theatre of St. Louis), has been lovingly mounted and is exceptionally well cast.
The two characters of the title are Bill Wilson, a wheeler-dealer New York stockbroker whose career collapsed into alcoholism with the 1929 crash, and Dr. Bob Smith, a doctor in Akron, Ohio, a self-described “secret drinker” who cannot stop himself. The script’s first half deftly sketches in their individual backgrounds, moving toward their fateful meeting in the mid-1930s. Wilson has for the time stopped drinking. He has also had a profound realization in a New York hospital that he can be the master of his fate and that he has to help others as well as himself overcome his alcoholism. But facing a failed business deal in Akron, he’s overcome with the need for a drink -- and the need to talk with another alcoholic to stay sober. Through a series of random connections, he finally gets in touch with Smith, a stranger who agrees to talk with him, and through a long night of conversation they realize the way to recovery is through mutual help. This sets them off on their search for others to help as well, with the knowledge that the path to sobriety is paved by helping others on the same journey.
The production give us vividly credible portraits of the two men. Patrick Boll brings a leading-man vivacity as well as heroic looks to Wilson, making his stumbles into drunkenness seem all the more tragic. Timothy Crow gives Dr. Bob an appropriately crusty exterior, igniting some laughs as well, but also lets us see the deep despair of the man inside. There are also affecting portraits of their wives by Denise Cormier as Lois Wilson and Deborah Hedwall as Anne Smith. And Daniel Pearce and Liz Wisan deserve bravos for their well-drawn portrayals of a variety of other folks who cross paths with the leading characters.
Gordon’s staging has cinematic fluidity, aided by the openness of set designer Wilson Chin’s handsome barroom set. It allows the play‘s various locales to be suggested by the quick placement of a few furniture pieces. Also noteworthy are the costumes of Teresa Snider Stein. Under Ann G. Wrightson lighting, they take on the look of vintage illustrations from Saturday Evening Post, while Kortney Barber’s sound design of tunes from the play’s era, add to the authentic period feel.
Other dramas have depicted the consequences of addiction in more harrowing terms, from the Billy Wilder-directed film The Lost Weekend to Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night and William Inge’s Come Back Little Sheba, to name just a few. But Bill W. and Dr. Bob succeeds in dramatizing the disease in very human terms. Furthermore, in showing us the friendship between these two unusual men and their mutual obsession to help themselves by listening to and helping others, it celebrates humanity’s better impulses, perhaps its best impulse.