Bill W. & Dr. Bob

Bill Wilson (Jim Cunningham) and Dr. Bob Smith (Stephen D’Ambrose). Photo by Lauren B. Photography.

Bill Wilson (Jim Cunningham) and Dr. Bob Smith (Stephen D’Ambrose). Photo by Lauren B. Photography.

Back before recovery programs like AA and treatment facilities like Hazelden became accepted parts of the substance abuse landscape, there were two options for addicts: desperate prayer or hopeless resignation. Relying on willpower or divine intervention, most alcoholics did not get very far for very long; it took the ingenuity and entrepreneurial energy of Bill W., a stockbroker, and Dr. Bob, a local doctor, to establish a new strategy from this rock bottom lack of options.

The story of Bill W. & Dr. Bob‘s first meeting and their subsequent development of Alcoholics Anonymous is so well-known by those in addiction recovery programs that it may feel like gospel; one the other hand, those who have little or no experience with such programs might wonder what they have to learn from a play about two historical alcoholics. However, like Jews going to a Nativity play, strangers to AA will find both cultural and emotional interest in the unfamiliar tale of Bill W. & Dr. Bob, while addicts and their loved ones will recognize themselves in the deeply human portraits of AA and AlAnon’s legendary founders.

The play’s strongest dramatic force is in its first act, when the lives, marriages, and sobriety of the protagonists hang delicately in the balance. Jim Cunningham and Stephen D’Ambrose do a remarkable job in the roles of Bill W. and Dr. Bob. From a technical standpoint, they manage to stay believable while playing various stages of inebriation (one of the toughest jobs for a sober actor); artistically, Cunningham’s charisma and D’Ambrose’s wry humor make the two characters instantly sympathetic without masking the deep psychological and interpersonal holes they have dug for themselves. Their need for each other – and relief, once they have found the support they so desperately lacked – produces a moment of true connection that is rare to see onstage in such immediacy.

It is also a tribute to playwrights Stephen Bergman and Janet Surrey that they did not neglect the importance of Bill’s and Dr. Bob’s wives in their recovery. As the bitter Lois Wilson, Carolyn Pool is so compelling that I wished she had even more stage time; Laura Esping plays Anne Smith’s disillusionment more quietly, but gives no less rich of a performance. (Michael Paul Levin and Kate Guentzel also deserve recognition for their quick character and costume changes as they switched back and forth to many different roles.)

Although I wouldn’t cut much from the first act or the portrayals of the men’s marriages, I do think that in the attempt to cover a wide range of important events – the first meeting, the beginnings of AlAnon, the partners’ early recruitment efforts – the playwrights may have bitten off too much material. The play drags in the second act; if this were actually a Nativity play, it would be as if the play didn’t end at the birth of Jesus, but rather continued a few years too long into his early childhood. I suppose that if this is your only exposure to the AA story, though, you may as well get as much information as possible; at least you can be assured that though the plot slows down, the acting stays strong.

For alcoholics and non-alcoholics alike, Bill W. & Dr. Bob has more to offer than just a re-telling of history. It is, above all, about the importance of supportive relationships and the ability to tell your story to a sympathetic listener. In this production – the play’s third time at the Illusion Theater – the actors’ true and honest performances turn us all into the sympathetic listeners we know we all ought to be.

Bill W. & Dr. Bob, by Stephen Bergman and Janet Surrey. Music by Roberta Carlson. At the Illusion Theater, Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts, 8th Floor, 528 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis. March 8-30, 2013.  Tickets:  $18-32; Sunday performances are Pay What You Can. Box office:  612-339-4944 or

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