Review: Bill W. and Dr. Bob Is an Inspirational Play for Its AA Community

I was sitting in the  lobby of the theater, waiting for the house to open. The lobby was crowded with people, chatting. A man came up to me and said, “Young lady, are you a friend of Bill and Bob?” I was puzzled by his question, thinking he meant the characters in the play. And then I realized what he meant. 

“No, I’m not,” I said. “I’m just here to see the play. Are you a friend?” 

“Very  much so,” he said. “All of us are.” 

And that’s how I came to know that Bill W. and Dr. Bob, a play about the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous, has a large, natural audience. I sat next to two young women from Peoria (yes, they’re friends of Bill and Bob) and met a man who came from Milwaukee to see the play. During intermission, audience members chatted eagerly and introduced themselves to new friends, always with the familiar “Hi, my name is John and I’m an alcoholic.” 

Ronnie Marmo directs this play, written by Samuel Shem and Janet Surrey. Despite its clear appeal for “friends of Bill and Bob,” the script needs improvement in story clarity and the staging needs more creativity in production values. 

Marmo’s company, Theatre 68, is staging  Bill and Bob in repertory with the play I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce, in which Marmo stars as the groundbreaking performer of political and social commentary.

Elizabeth Rude, Maria Seidell, Katherine Fetterman. Photo by Cortney Roles.

Bill W. and Dr. Bob is the story of how Bill Wilson, a New York stockbroker played by Marmo, stumbles through life as an alcoholic until he finds a way to deal with his problem (now referred to as alcohol use disorder).  He’s on his way out of the depths when he meets Dr. Bob  Smith (Steve Gelder), an Akron surgeon who often performs surgery hungover or hyped up on pills and booze. Bill begins to help Bob control his alcohol needs and both realize that the solution to alcoholism has to be one man at a time and that “only drunks can help drunks.” To prove their theory, they meet and try to help another alcoholic (The Man, played by Phil Aman).

Their wives play pivotal roles for both men, as their lives deteriorate in alcoholic oblivion. Their wives despair and fight with and for them. Katherine Wetterman plays Lois Wilson and Elizabeth Rude plays Anne Smith. (The two wives formed AlAnon.) Maria Seidell plays The Woman, The Man’s wife. 

Connections with the Oxford Group are mentioned frequently in Bill W. and Dr. Bob. The beliefs and practices of the organization, a Christian fellowship group, influenced the step process for which Alcoholics Anonymous became known. 

Marmo has his own personal connection with the story. He started going to Alcoholics Anonymous when he was 17 years old and “I know that the organization saved my life.” 

Marmo and Wetterman. Photo by Cortney Roles.

Bill W. and Dr. Bob is performed on an almost-bare stage with minimal costume changes. The script presents the story in episodic form with quick blackouts between scenes. (Lighting design is by Cortney Roles and costumes by Jessica Eudy.)

Under Marmo’s direction, performances by all six actors are capable, but the production as a whole could improve its quality. The script, originally written and produced in 2007, skims superficially over its complex problem, seemingly played for the satisfaction of a specific audience community. Production values could be improved with creative attention to scenic design, props and sound design. Bill W. and Dr. Bob should aim for the quality of its sibling play, I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce.

Bill W. and Dr. Bob has been extended through April 28 at the Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Both this play and the Lenny Bruce production are staged in the upstairs Richard Christiansen Theater. Running time is two hours with one intermission. 

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.