December 5 2003
A worshipful look at the birth of AA
Until May 12, 1935, treatment for alcoholism was administered by well-meaning but clueless crusaders, exemplified by religious organizations like the Oxford Group, who lacked insight into life in the deep trenches of addiction. Not surprisingly, the recidivism rate was horrifying.
The treatment landscape changed with the chance encounter between Bill Wilson, a stockbroker from Brooklyn, and Bob Smith, a surgeon from Akron — both alcoholics whose drinking had all but destroyed their careers and their family lives. The deceptively simple lesson they discovered in that meeting — that it takes one to help one — and the organization they built on it are the subjects of “Bill W. and Dr. Bob,” a biographical dramatization by Samuel Shem and Janet Surrey about the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous.
An often moving revival by the 68 Cent Crew theater company reunites founding director Ronnie Marmo and the principals from last year’s staging at another venue to inaugurate the company’s permanent residence at Theatre 68 on the edge of Hollywood.
Earnest, impassioned performances by the thoroughly professional Charles Hoyes as Bill W. and Art LaFleur as Dr. Bob humanize the stories of these pioneers, with all their personal triumphs and failures. Their dynamic is compelling: New Yorker Bill’s neurotic, visionary fire married to Dr. Bob’s Midwestern pragmatism shows us that successful intervention is as dependent on personality as on principle.
As Bill’s wife, Andrea Birkman embodies the tribulations of innocent bystanders caught up in an alcoholic’s self-destruction with particularly heartbreaking effectiveness.
Nevertheless, the play rarely transcends its serviceable but sometimes pedantic docudrama scripting; a few attempted artistic flourishes, such as the overlapping monologues that frame the story, are simply awkward. This limits the appeal to those who will appreciate the quality performances and the worthwhile message, without too much concern for narrative ingenuity.
Also worth noting are the commitment and hard work (still in progress) in transforming an empty warehouse space into a quality 99-seat theater with excellent sightlines. This is a company that clearly means business.