By Sally Carpenter
With December’s temptation of free-flowing liquor at holiday parties and New Year’s Eve toasts, this is a good time for the Phoenix Theater Group to present “Bill W. and Dr. Bob” at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts.
The off-Broadway play, written by husband-and-wife team Samuel Shem and Janet Surrey, tells how two drunks (as they called themselves) found sobriety and later founded Alcoholics Anonymous.
William Wilson, aka Bill W. (Tom Hannon), and Dr. Robert Smith, aka Dr. Bob (Blake Dennis), open the show as though they were at an A.A. meeting: Each states his name followed by the words “I’m an alcoholic.”
The scenes then begin in 1925, alternating between Bill, a successful New York stockbroker, and Bob, a surgeon in Akron, Ohio.
After the 1929 market crash, Bill turns to the bottle. Bob is a “secret drinker” who is frequently drunk on nights before he performs surgery. Alcoholism is wrecking their lives but the men can’t quit drinking.
Their long-suffering wives, Lois Wilson (Carolee Hannon) and Annie Smith (Claudia Pariso), are angry about their husbands’ drinking but powerless to help them.
Treatment for alcoholism in the 1920s apparently consisted of sending the person to a hospital or sanitarium until they dried out. Alcoholics were seen as demonpossessed, of weak moral character or psychologically challenged.
Bill’s friend Ebby Thacher (Richie Perez), a fellow alcoholic who’s found religion and sobriety, urges Bill to turn to a higher power: “You don’t need to believe in God; just believe that you’re not God.”Sagebrush Cantina
Bill hitsThe rockAcornbottom during a hospital2stay,col byand4 in a moment of frustration and surrender experiences an epiphany.
A job assignment sends him to Akron, where, through unbelievable circumstances, he meets Bob. Bill and Bob have nothing in common except their alcoholism, yet they become friends and unlikely allies.
They believe that nobody can help a drunk except another drunk, and that the way to maintain their own sobriety is to help others find freedom from drink.
Anne supports the men in their crusade. Lois, however, arrives in Akron as one who’s found a life away from an absent husband. The two women share their mutual hurt and unwittingly form Al-Anon, the support group for friends and family of alcoholics.
Despite the serious theme, the play is frequently funny (“Are you Episcopalian?” Bill replies, “No, alcoholic.”). Period music and sound effects are used well.
The production company is a nonprofit enterprise that produces plays meant to educate audiences about alcoholism. Many of the actors and crew members are recovering alcoholics.
The company should be commended for its high-minded mission.
But with the use of both novice as well as seasoned actors, some performances are not as successful as others.
Dennis is a standout with his portrayal of a cantankerous, pragmatic doctor and silly drunk. In one heartbreaking scene, he gets on one knee to beg his wife’s forgiveness for his drunkenness.
Hannon, who also directed the show, is fine as Bill, an average guy who’s a loser when drunk and an idealist when sober. He wants to save “hundreds, even thousands” of alcoholics. The levelheaded doctor tells him to “just look for one.”
Richie Perez has a big job in portraying five characters; John Rosalez plays four. Jossie Riley, Michele Romain, Elora Daily, Jody Fritts and Sussie Brest appear in small roles.
The play tells the story in a number of short scenes, which seems a bit choppy at times, especially with the frequent set changes. With a running time of two hours, 30 minutes, some scenes drag and could be trimmed. At times the dialogue gets too didactic with shallow character study, but given the subject matter, it’s understandable.
There’s also the matter that all alcoholics are portrayed as loud, mean, violent men. Bob himself is surprised that he’s spoken to a “lady drunk.” The play makes only a passing remark about Prohibition and doesn’t address the fact that many men lost jobs and became alcoholics because of the Great Depression.
Due to strong language and mature themes, the play is not recommended for children.
Despite the uneven acting talent, the play has much to recommend it, primarily in its willingness to address a difficult social issue. At the end, the men achieve a small victory by winning over just one man—and forming an organization that has helped millions find sobriety, health and happiness.