Monday, April 19, 2010

Bill W. and Dr. Bob

The story of Alcoholics Anonymous unfolds at CPH

Two men stand on opposite sides of the Cleveland Play House’s Bolton Theatre stage at the start of ‘BILL W. AND DR. BOB.’ As they speak we learn that they are going to share with us the tale of two alcoholics and how they founded Alcoholics Anonymous.

Alcoholism is an addictive disorder characterized by the compulsive and uncontrolled abuse of alcohol. The alcohol controls the person, rather than the person controlling the substance. It often results in adverse effects upon the drinker's health and can cause life issues. It is medically defined as a treatable disease, but definition and reality are not the same. Alcoholism is a major disease in the US. It is estimated that among persons aged 12 or older, 7.6 percent (18.2 million) meet the criteria for being alcoholics.

In the spring of 1935, New Yorker, Bill Wilson, found himself on a business trip in Akron, Ohio, trying to annihilate his craving for a drink. This was not his first slam against the wall of alcoholism. He had bottomed out in a hospital some months earlier. While he was there he supposedly was awakened by a flash of light and experienced what he described as a “spiritual conversion.” He could have gone in many directions, but as the story goes, through a serendipitously happening, he contacted a surgeon named Bob Smith, also an alcoholic. The rest is history.

‘BILL W. AND DR. BOB’ is the attempt of Stephen Bergman, a doctor and novelist, and his wife, Janet Surrey, a clinical psychologist, to explain how the two men developed what many consider to be the best non-clinical approach to dealing with alcoholism.

The play, though it is emotionally stirring from the standpoint of the good the two men did, is not totally satisfying. I found some of the dialogue stilted and I left the theatre with lots of questions. We hear over and over the plea to join the duo in their process. What, exactly, is the process? We are never directly told. Queries such as, how did the philosophy of the meetings develop? Why are the sessions leaderless? Maybe answers to those questions weren’t the purpose of Berman and Surrey, but it seems a lot of time in the play was used to discuss factors that could have been left out and some more meaty matters dealt with.

The CPH production, under the adept direction of Seth Gordon, is quite good. The angst and the frustrations are evident. The humor--yes, there is humor--comes through.

Timothy Crowe is outstanding as Dr. Bob, He, of tall and gawky stature, has a wonderful way of keying humor and his displays of his character’s frustrations with himself, and the world in which he lived, are compelling. His pitch-perfect New England sound helps shape the person. Though fine, Sean Patrick Reilly is not Crowe’s match. Reilly is void of accent and seems to move in and out of concentration and realism.

In supporting roles, Denise Cormier isn’t always given line motivations in her role as Bill W’s wife, but makes good of what she is given. Margaret Daly plays the understanding wife well, but, again, her lines don’t always give her the ability to develop a complete being.

Charles Kartali does wonderfully with his mutli-roles. He presents a mesmerizing reading of one of the strongest speeches in the play, that of a hospitalized alcoholic who is forced to make a decision as to whether he will turn himself over to the theories of Bill W. and Dr. Bob or continue to flounder in a world of alcoholic haze. Also good in various roles is Heather Anderson Boll.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ‘BILL W. AND DR. BOB’ is an introduction into the frustrations of alcoholism and how the basic idea of Alcoholics Anonymous was developed. It is an illuminating, if not an entirely satisfying evening of theatre.