Bill W. and Dr. Bob
Reviewed by Lovell Estell III
Theatre 68 @NoHo Arts Center
Extended through July 17
Ask anyone whether they’ve heard of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) and you’ll probably get a quick “yes,” along with an annoyed “what a stupid question” stare. But it’s a safe bet that the names Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith wouldn’t be recognized. They were the men who started the organization in the unenlightened 1930’s, when being a drunk was seen as a moral deficiency or the fault of a sinful nature, not a complex disease. Their story is the subject of this engaging drama by Stephen Bergman and Janet Surrey, which opens at an A. A. meeting, with Dr. Bob (Bill Lippincott) and Bill (Ronnie Marmo) stepping onstage and introducing themselves as alcoholics — an established ritual at all A.A. meetings ever since.
The pair provide brief snippets of background information about themselves before the action shifts to 1925 (events unfold in New York and Akron, Ohio), and we see Bill and his wife Lois (Melissa Kite) in full youthful vigor, anticipating a bright future. But Lois’s anguished pleadings reveal that Bill has started to have a problem with alcohol. Here we also meet Dr. Bob and his wife Annie (Laura Lee), who are likewise having difficulties because of Bob’s drinking.
Act I’s twelve scene format is rather long, but it constructs a disturbing — and sometimes darkly humorous — depiction of the lies, denials, byzantine deceptions and extraordinary exertions alcoholics will utilize to continue drinking without detection. In one hilarious scene, Bill and Bob try to one up each other about the unusual places they hide their bottles around the house (even the toilet basin).
But it’s the pain and the damage they inflict upon themselves — and above all on the people they love — that resonates most clearly. (“You don’t even have the decency to die,” a frustrated and furious Lois roars at Bill.) Cleverly interwoven throughout the play is an engaging discourse on the role religion and faith play in personal transformation. Bob has an unyielding distaste for religion; Bill is a believer in miracles, and a man of the Spirit.
Act I closes with the happenstance meeting between Bill, a successful stockbroker, and Bob, a surgeon. Together they would eventually lay the groundwork for the creation of A.A. and the emergence of what was then the novel idea that alcoholics could actually help each other remain sober. That’s the primary focus of Act II, which is briefer and better focused.
What is truly moving about this story is the veil of simple, flawed and noble humanity that swathes these characters, and the idea that determined people, no matter how seemingly insignificant they might seem, can make a big difference in the world. The men’s wives would go on to found Al-Anon, a support group for the families of alcoholics. Marmo, who also directs, gets solid performances from his cast, and turns in a fine performance, as does Lippincott who instills into his role an intense vulnerability and range of emotions.
The production is double cast.
Theatre 68@NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.; Thur.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun. 2 & 7 p.m.; Extended through July 17. (323)-960-5068 or www.theatre68.com Running time: two hours and 15 minutes with one ten minute intermission.