Precisely because it has a deeply human, audience-embracing tale to tell, that of the two Vermont-born alcoholics who founded Alcoholics Anonymous in Akron, Ohio, in 1935, “Bill W. and Dr. Bob” ultimately rises well above the fact that it’s not a brilliant piece of theater. By sheer dint of intelligent writing , a leavening of humorand the innate power of its biographical storytelling, the play actually touches its audience by the time its two-plus hours are done. (Basically the same story was told in the 1989 telepic “My Name Is Bill W.,” with James Woods and James Garner and a script by William G. Borchert.)
At the performance seen, many audience members gave evidence of being AA members, responding to the stage Bill W. and Dr. Bob’s self-introductions with “Hello, Bill” and “Hello, Bob.” Audience rapport was established immediately, and although there were longeurs along the way, and too much scene-bridging piano music prevented the play from building dramatic momentum, that rapport grew rather than dissipated.
Since alcoholism is, to quote the play’s producers, “America’s most pervasive public health problem,” there would seem to be a large audience out there for “Bill W. and Dr. Bob.” But even non-drinkers should find it rewarding.
Samuel Shem is the pen name of Steve Bergman, playwright, novelist, psychiatrist and chairman of clinical projects at the Harvard Medical School Division on Addictions. Janet Surrey, his wife, is a clinical psychologist and instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School. They know their subject matter, a great help to their play.
It begins in 1926 when N.Y. stockbroker Bill Wilson (Anderson Matthews) and his wife are about to reap financial benefits from the Roaring ’20s. It moves on to the ’30s, during which the Wilsons are hard hit by the Depression, and to the play’s core, the meeting between 39-year-old Bill and 55-year-old Dr. Bob Smith (Edwin J. McDonough) in Akron.
Both have been alcoholics for years, but following a blinding revelation (insufficiently dramatized) that opens Bill’s eyes to the possibility of redemption, the two get together and learn that by sharing their experiences they can help one another — and others. Act two is particularly engrossing, showing how hard the two had to work to recruit the first members of what would become AA.
Writers Shem and Surrey, together with actors Matthews and McDonough, establish a telling relation between the two AA founders, Matthews a vigorous Bill W., McDonough a very New England Dr. Bob. The pain inflicted upon their steadfast wives, affectingly portrayed by Sheila Stasack and Barbara Farrar, also is clearly projected. Bruce Ward and Kippy Goldfarb add a far-ranging gallery of other characters.
The production would benefit from being less genteel and could lose at least half the onstage piano music. The sharply raked stage has a red-and-white checkerboard pattern. Piano, table and chairs remain stationery, while other props are moved on and offstage throughout the play. The rear scrim at first bears a projection of a photograph of the two central characters, followed by abstract designs. Probably because it lacks a box set to help project voices from the big Emerson Majestic stage, some of the dialogue is hard to catch, and the lighting is too busy being atmospheric to allow the audience to see the cast clearly.
Still, “Bill W. and Dr. Bob” tells a remarkable story. Tightened, strengthened and brightened, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t have a life well beyond Boston.