Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Bill W. And Dr. Bob"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2006 by Beverly Creasey


New Rep Honors
the AA Spirit of Service

Reviewed by Beverly Creasey

Alcoholism causes over 100,000 deaths to Americans each year, tying it with stroke and accident as the third leading cause of death in the U.S. Children of alcoholics suffer serious consequences even if they themselves do not drink. Studies have found that these children, from an early age, lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth. They have difficulty with intimacy, cannot experience fun, haven’t the ability to consider the consequences before they act, judge themselves without mercy and tend to be either super-responsible or super-irresponsible. So what’s a family with an alcohol problem to do? Antabuse? Interventions? AA?

Two local medical educators, Janet Surrey and Stephen Bergman, have dramatized the famous story of Bill W. and Dr. Bob, the two founders of AA. The unlikely adventure which brought the two Vermonters together in Ohio to work out the secret of sobriety, is playing through the end of the month at New Repertory Theatre.

Where self-control, sanitarium stays, and medical interventions have all failed them, the two men discover that telling their stories to each other, and dedicating themselves to helping other alcoholics, does work. They set out to prove their hypothesis by recruiting “a reliable supply of drunks” while long suffering wives sit home, wring their hands, and write long, despairing letters. Dr. Bob is able to work as a surgeon, believe it or not, while he is drinking, but Bill W. can’t seem to make any of his financial schemes fly, so Mrs. W. pitches in and supports his travels. While some of the audience laughed at Dr. Bob’s jokes about “not killing” any of his patients, some of us who’ve had surgery of late, cringed at the prospect.

The play is long on detail, painstakingly reciting (almost) every letter Mrs. W. sends to her wandering husband. And although it must have been exciting at the time for the two men to find their calling, the play doesn’t share that passion with the audience. Instead we are witness to scene after scene of drunken episodes ---which could have been whittled down to just a few (to symbolize the many). At one point Dr. Bob attempts to verbalize what an alcoholic stupor feels like. He explains that “[his] whole life has been slowed down”---which is what, alas, the play feels like, despite some earnest performances.

Although we never learn why the women stay with their men, Rachel Harker makes the most of her role as Mrs. W, as does Kathleen Doyle as Mrs. Bob. It is Todd C. Gordon, however, whose presence gives the production class. He sits quietly at the piano, punctuating scenes and conjuring the period of the play with his dreamy, original score of evocative ragtime and jazz.

Both Robert Krakovski (as Bill W.) and Patrick Husted (as Dr. Bob) give broad, expansive performances meant to mimic a grandiose, out-of-control alcoholic state but both performances seem oddly wrought and all over the place, as if they had no grounding. Playing drunk on stage, in my opinion, is extremely difficult. Finding a rhythm for the character while playing that nano-second delay that alcoholics don’t know they have, can be a daunting task. To his credit, director Rick Lombardo keeps any ‘lurching’ at bay. (The best performance of a drunk I’ve ever seen is Trinity Rep’s Richard Jenkins’ “Mister Bobby” in Horton Foote’s “On Valentine’s Day.”)

Lombardo gets solid work from Marc Carver and Deanna Dunmyer as everyone else in the story: barflies, wives, doctors, lawyers and medical chiefs. Too many episodes, unfortunately, tell the same story over and over. The noble “one day at a time” philosophy at the heart of AA seems to have been overwhelmed here, as the quip goes, by “several [days/stories] attacking at once.”

"Bill W. and Dr. Bob" (5-26 March)
NEW REPERTORY THEATRE
200 Dexter Avenue, WATERTOWN, MA
1 (617) 923-8487

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