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'Bill W.': An Inspiring, Though Predictable, Tale

June 29, 1995|NANCY CHURNIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN DIEGO — "Bill W. & Dr. Bob" tells the inspirational tale of Bill Wilson, a New York stockbroker, and Bob Smith, an Ohio surgeon, the two former drunks who founded Alcoholics Anonymous 60 years ago.

But the script itself, while disseminating important information about a movement that was to revolutionize therapy, lacks the element of surprise that lifts agitprop to art. You keep waiting for the inevitable to happen--and feel guilty for making artistic judgments about the theatricalization of an idea that has proved a life raft for millions.

The show, produced by the Cambridge Theatre Company at the Lyceum Stage, had its professional premiere in Boston earlier this month. Presented in association with the San Diego Repertory Theatre and Access Youth Opportunity Center, it arrives here for its second production at a fortuitous time.

Some 70,000 to 80,000 people will descend on the San Diego Convention Center for a four-day A.A. convention that opens today. Now that decades have passed since the deaths of A.A.'s founders, the show may help remind the movement's followers of the its rather remarkable roots.

Wilson and Smith were two ordinary, if desperate, people who might never have met if Wilson hadn't found himself alone in a bar in Akron, Ohio, convinced that the only thing that would stop him from drinking was to talk to another drunk.

A series of calls puts him in touch with Smith, who agreed to meet with him for 15 minutes. Those 15 minutes turned into six hours--and provided the nucleus of what would become A.A. Instead of professionals treating alcoholics, drunks would help drunks to keep each other sober one day at a time.

*

The playwrights--the husband-wife team of Harvard psychiatrist Steve Bergman (writing under the pen name Samuel Shem) and psychologist Janet Surrey--have chosen a framework as tidy as hospital corners on a bed.

Dr. Bob and Bill W. address the audience as A.A. members giving testimony. The testimony segues into their stories. Under the elegantly designed sets by Maureen Lilla and Margo Zdravkovic, their stories unfold alternately on different sides of the stage with a bar set in the middle.

But while key information is given about the men's backgrounds and what might have led them to drink, ultimately it is not the characterizations of the men that stays with you. It's scene after scene depicting the two men getting drunk, making promises and breaking promises until they achieve that breakthrough.

The show pretty much ends after Wilson and Smith prove that their theory works by bringing one more drunk to sobriety. The playwrights present the problem, then the solution, then bam--happily ever after--it's over.

To the extent that the characters do come alive, credit must be given to David Wheeler's sensitive direction and a fine cast that hungrily ferrets out all the subtleties it can. Jack Willis is particularly compelling as Dr. Bob, shooting looks palpable in their self-loathing and fury. But the script fails him by casting him as such a saint after sobriety that he seems barely alive.

*

Michael Balcanoff plays the mercurial Bill with charismatic dynamism--but he is harder to read. It's not always clear whether this smooth talker is talking himself and others into something or whether he's expressing a deeply held belief.

Alex Loria portrays Bill's long-suffering wife, Lois, with a depth of pain that leaves one with the impression that her character had a lot more to say than she gets a chance to say here. As Bob's wife, Anne, Marya Lowry does the best she can with a difficult leap from deep depression to post-A.A. sunshine.

Bruce Ward and Kippy Goldfarb fill out the story with their skillful portrayals of a variety of men's and women's parts.

The design details are all quality work. Nancy Flessas' costumes subtly evoke the period. Linda O'Brien's lighting moves smoothly from the Wilson's kitchenette to the Smith's living room.

Some of the thinness of the script may very well be fleshed out in later productions. Certainly there is a lot of meat to this quintessentially American story of two men who used inspired common sense rather than textbook theories to solve their problems and those of millions of others.

* "Bill W. & Dr. Bob," San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., 12:30 p.m. performance on July 7. No show Tuesday. $21-$25. (619) 235-8025. Ends July 9. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

Michael Balcanoff: Bill W.

Jack Willis: Dr. Bob

Alex Loria: Lois Wilson

Marya Lowry: Anne Smith

Bruce Ward: Man

Kippy Goldfarb: Woman

The Cambridge Theatre Company in association with San Diego Repertory Theatre and Access Youth Opportunity Center. By Samuel Shem and Janet Surrey. Directed by David Wheeler. Sets: Maureen Lilla, Margo Zdravkovic. Costumes: Nancy Flessas. Lights: Linda O'Brien. Sound: Johnna Doty. Stage manager: Susan A. Virgilio.

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