Decades ago, when playwrights Samuel Shem and Janet Surrey read the biographies of Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, they were overwhelmed. “Here was a great American story of two men who, alone, were going to die,” they wrote, “but who together not only found a way to live, but created a program for healing that has spread throughout the world.” That program is Alcoholics Anonymous, and this carefully crafted and well-acted production portrays the chain of events that brought about the unlikely alliance of a failed stockbroker and a struggling surgeon. With a simple set and a cast of six, Bill W. and Dr. Bob excels at tracing the dramatic curve from loss to redemption, and at illuminating the critical insights that made AA different from earlier approaches.
Presented by Happy Destiny Productions, the play features Tim Whitcomb in the role of Dr. Bob Smith. John Brindle turns in a fine performance as the restless and ambitious Bill Wilson, who stumbles along the razor’s edge of sobriety, swinging helplessly between zeal and despair. Whitcomb and Brindle are entirely believable in their portrayal of dissimilar personalities who fatefully complement each other as dynamic sail and stalwart rudder in their visionary work.
A fair measure of the script concerns the anguished spouses of the title characters, Lois Wilson (Jean Hall) and Anne Smith (Kathy Marden), and shows the conditions that impelled the parallel inception of Al-Anon, the support program for nondrinkers whose lives have been affected by drinkers. Ray Wallenthin and Kathleen Leary bring imagination and chameleon skills to important miscellaneous roles. Ben Crop’s sound design lends important color to the atmosphere, as when a single plaintive piano note that is repeated between the early scenes of loss later develops into chords of hope.
Bill W. and Dr. Bob has enduring meaning beyond its special focus on alcoholism. Bringing darkness to light is never easy, but 78 years ago, two ill men discovered that honesty about weakness, amid a non-judgmental community of support, could release unsuspected and redemptive strength.