BILL W. & DR. BOB
Directed by Karla Kash
StageWest Theatre Co
Des Moines, IA

 

 

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REVIEWS

Play chronicles struggles of AA founders

By MICHAEL MORAIN • The Des Moines Register • September 21, 2010

 

The opening line is by now a cliché: “I’m Bill W., and I’m an alcoholic.”

 

But those words represent the hard-won results of both a personal struggle, in this case of Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson, and the bigger struggle to create AA itself, in a time when people kept their problems private. Back in the 1930s, remember, nobody suffered from TMI or sang along with a song called “Rehab” on the radio.

 

In “Bill W. and Dr. Bob,” which StageWest presents through Sunday at the Civic Center’s Stoner Theater in Des Moines, the opening line serves simply as a conversation starter for the powerful show that follows, based on the real-life story of Wilson and co-founder Robert Smith’s parallel battles with booze and their tentative efforts to create the organization that has since helped millions of people over the course of its 75-year history.

 

The story is already familiar to anyone who has read the so-called Big Book, the general AA text that spells out the now-famous 12 Steps, or those who remember the award-winning 1989 made-for-TV movie “My Name is Bill W.,” starring James Woods and James Garner.

 

But it’s worth retelling, and StageWest does it well, with an insightful script by Stephen Bergman and Janet Surrey, thoughtfully paced direction by Karla Kash, a handsome set by Jay Jagim and gut-deep performances from the cast. Joseph Leonardi stars as Wilson, Gary Roberts is Smith, and Kerry Skram and Jeanne Hopson play their respective wives, who founded the support group for alcoholics’ friends and families, known as Al Anon.

 

As the audience gathers, the actors welcome each arrival with a friendly handshake and a cup of coffee. But the smiles don’t last long.

 

As soon as the first scenes introduce the title characters – Wilson is a hard-charging Wall Street financial analyst who loses a fortune in the 1929 crash; Smith is a surgeon in Akron, Ohio – the play plunges them into the troubles familiar to many alcoholics and their families. Broken promises lead to outright lies. Arguments erupt into full-on fights.

The show moves quickly into more interesting territory. When Wilson visits Akron on a business trip and meets Smith during an awkward encounter arranged by one of Smith’s busybody neighbors (Sarah Hinzman, who, with Dan Haymes, ably fills a handful of supporting roles), the two men swap drinking stories – about why they started, what it’s done to their lives and how they’ve tried to quit.

 

Together they start to question the myths about alcoholism that were widespread at the time, namely that it was a moral weakness rather than a medical disease with specific symptoms, and more important, a course of treatment. Suddenly, they see the light.

 

“We’re going to save hundreds, thousands, millions!” Wilson says, with his typical enthusiasm.

 

“Let’s just save one more,” counters the more practical Smith.

 

From there they lay the groundwork for a treatment strategy that has helped not only alcoholics but addicts of all sorts, including a handful who stuck around after the show for a question-and-answer session organized by the play’s chief sponsor, the Powell Chemical Dependency Center at Iowa Lutheran Hospital. Two AA members offered their own stories in what turned out to be a thought-provoking session, the kind of discussion many have shared before and one that will no doubt repeat itself for years to come.

 

Bold choice opens StageWest’s 2010-2011 season

Theatrical review by John Busbee, Cultural Buzz

 

One thing you can always count on with StageWest Theatre Company – don’t count on predictability! With a penchant for producing provocative plays ranging from the irreverent to the introspective, this season’s opening show brings an historic, cerebral touch to another impressive season of ground-breaking works. Bill W. and Dr. Bob unveils the events which precipitated the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous through a series of scenes spanning ten years. For those lacking direct contact with AA programming, this show provides a special human perspective and understanding to this uniquely successful program. For those whose lives have been touched by alcoholism, this show resonates while sharing with the rest of the world the core trust AA offers.

 

Thanks to the tenacity and vision of William Wilson and Dr. Robert Smith (Bill W. and Dr. Bob), a successful mutual aid movement was established, Alcoholics Anonymous, which now claims more than 2 million members and declaring its “primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety.” Written by Stephen Bergman and Janet Surrey (his wife), a clinical psychologist and author of many books,  this play covers the formative years between 1925 and 1935 in various cities and locations, bookended by a Prologue (set in 1939) and an Epilogue (1955). Bergman, a Harvard Medical facility doctor for thirty years, won acclaim under his pen-name “Samuel Shem” as a playwright and novelist. Bergman commented during a recent Culture Buzz interview how he “was surprised this story had not yet been told.” His belief it would be especially effective as a play survived an initial flood of rejections. With StageWest’s production as an impressive measuring stick, Bergman’s belief is well founded.

 

Walking into the theatre, just when you think you’ve seen it all from StageWest’s creative team, everyone is immediately struck by one of the most stunning designs to ever grace this often challenging space. Scenic and Lighting Designer Jay Michael Jagim wraps the show’s demanding multiple locations requirements with a versatile, wood-paneled set. This design helps define the scenes, giving freedom of movement, yet sometimes providing confining spaces, thanks to his complementary lighting. Doris Nash enhances the period setting with a fine array of costumes, while a sublime touch is added by the elegant solo piano work of Paul Witmer, whose music enhanced scenes and scene shifts.

 

Bergman weaves the story of the previously successful stockbroker Wilson coping through booze with the stock market crash with the secret drunken life of Akron surgeon Smith. With one more chance to regain his lost career, Wilson makes a sales trip to Akron, where a possible deal falls through. He is left in despair, refusing to again succumb to booze, instead seeking a fellow drunk who will just talk with him. A desperate series of attempted phone calls to connect with another drunk (failing, at first – “Aren’t there any drunks in Akron?”) finally leads Wilson to Smith. An intended 15-minute talk expands into six hours of kindred spirit revelation, and the beginning of their shared crusade to find and, ultimately, save other drunks.

 

From Bill’s opening Monologue, Joseph Leonardi quickly channels the energy, sense of purpose, and refusal to quit aspects that make Bill W. such a commanding figure. As Dr. Bob, Gary Roberts brings a soft-edged, yet demon-filled, presence to balance much of Leonardi’s fire. In Lois, Bill’s wife, Kerry Skram slowly brings her character up to speed, culminating in a moving monologue in Act 2 at a pivotal point in their relationship. Jeanne Hopson brings a sense of refined duty and devotion, yet with limits, to her role as Bob’s wife, Anne. Sarah Hinzman and Dan Haymes each portray a variety of Woman and Man roles. Hinzman’s initial character, Henrietta Sieberling, head of the Oxford Group in Akron, is a spiritually starched willow of a figure. Haymes does an exceptional job in defining each of the roles he plays through physical and vocal shifts, with a very fine turn as the hospitalized, drunken attorney warding off Bill and Bob’s efforts to deliver him to salvation through their cause.

 

The driving force of this show, however, lies in Leonardi’s ability to completely make the dialogue his own, instilling his Bill with a believable life. He emanates with an intense energy onstage, drawing the audience into the complex highs and lows that lets us understand how this man could, with the partnership of Bob, create the solid foundation of what would become Alcoholics Anonymous.

 

Although Act 1 moves awkwardly at times, with the dialogue sometimes lacking a rhythm and drive, Act 2 quickly brings a focus and intensity that satisfies. Bill W. and Dr. Bob is a rewarding theatrical journey which avoids the potential pitfalls of preachiness and fact-laden history. It instead delivers a surprisingly insightful story about an iconic piece of American life.

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