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Theater Review (NYC): ‘Bill W. and Dr. Bob’ by Sam Shem and Janet Surrey

Bill W. and Dr. Bob by Sam Shem and Janet Surrey, directed by Seth Gordon, is based on the true story of two individuals who were slowly destroying themselves. Neither Bill Wilson nor Bob Smith could  stop the progression of guilt, failure, depression, binge behavior, and near death episodes which stole years off their lives as they continually lost the good fight against their alcohol addiction. Shem and Surrey thoroughly researched the lives of Bill and Dr. Bob, discovering how these two serendipitously met and…

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Summary : Bill W. and Dr. Bob is the overcoming story of two alcoholics who saved themselves and each other and eventually founded AA and started saving others.

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Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, courtesy of the play website.

Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, courtesy of the play website.

Bill W. and Dr. Bob by Sam Shem and Janet Surrey, directed by Seth Gordon, is based on the true story of two individuals who were slowly destroying themselves. Neither Bill Wilson nor Bob Smith could  stop the progression of guilt, failure, depression, binge behavior, and near death episodes which stole years off their lives as they continually lost the good fight against their alcohol addiction.

Shem and Surrey thoroughly researched the lives of Bill and Dr. Bob, discovering how these two serendipitously met and stumbled upon a treatment which through trial and error evolved into a small group to help a few locals who desperately wanted to be free from alcoholism. What eventually was born out of Bill and Dr. Bob’s relationship and their understanding of the deepest vulnerabilities of an alcoholic’s nature is the now global self-help organization Alcoholics Anonymous. To date AA has the highest success rate of any treatment plan. AA is efficacious in getting alcoholics to stay sober, thrive, and prosper. Their reaffirmation becomes that of proud individuals who have reversed destructive patterns and freed themselves from the emotional and physical bondages of alcohol addiction, knowing that they will be alcoholics for the rest of their life.

Patrick Boll and Denise Cormier in Bill W. and Dr. Bob, by Sam Shem and Janet Surrey at SoHo Playhouse. Photo courtesy of the production website.

Patrick Boll and Denise Cormier in Bill W. and Dr. Bob, by Sam Shem and Janet Surrey at SoHo Playhouse. Photo courtesy of the production website.

The play begins at an AA meeting where Bill W. (Patrick Boll) and Dr. Bob (Steve Brady) introduce themselves as alcoholics and tell a bit about their present. Then the playwrights use flashback to relate the story of how these men became established alcoholics who attempted to keep their day jobs despite their inability to stay off the booze.

For Dr. Bob it is a grave danger for he is a surgeon and his hands grow progressively unsteadier. One slip and he may kill his patient. For Bill, a financial broker who increasingly cannot function, he is reduced to near poverty after the 1920s Wall Street collapse and a string of financial ventures that blow up before they take off. Through juxtaposing vignettes and scenes with their wives (Denise Cormier and Deborah Hedwall) and in their relationship to the bottle, we see how alcohol is a boon and a bane, succor for the soul and a canker worm that drains their hope, confidence, and courage to change. The ensemble cast works together beautifully with smooth, natural fluidity.

The playwrights dispel all myths that alcoholics are able to auto-correct or that daily drinking to excess isn’t as bad as assumed and thus may be conveniently tempered. This is one of the play’s strengths. It is direct, entertaining, humorous, and it is deadly accurate. For example, in one scene after Bill and Dr. Bob have just met and Bill himself is “dying” for a drink, we see how Bill wrangles with a drunken Bob until he must actually give Bob hard liquor over the righteous protests of Bob’s wife to prevent him from going into a seizure and stroking out.

Patrick Boll in Bill W. and Dr. Bob, by Sam Shem and Janet Surrey, directed by Seth Gordon, at SoHo Playhouse. Photo courtesy of the play website.

Patrick Boll in Bill W. and Dr. Bob, by Sam Shem and Janet Surrey, directed by Seth Gordon, at SoHo Playhouse. Photo courtesy of the play website.

It is a crucial scene and compelling moment in the play, beautifully rendered by Patrick Boll, Steve Brady,  and Deborah Hedwall. With clarity we see beyond all the platitudes and the enforced religious judgments and condemnatory finger pointings. Such reactions to and about alcoholics are useless and counterproductive. Only an alcoholic understands the duress of withdrawal, the severe state of shock that can occur (apart from medical personnel). Only the depths of empathic knowledge can minister healing and soothe the deep hurts that loved ones have unwittingly and unconsciously inflicted through their “good-will” attempts to get the alcoholic to stop.

The play is exceptional in revealing the arc and pattern of individual growth and the positive synergy that can burgeon between individuals, so that they are able to create the miraculous. Bill W. and Dr. Bob draws the curve from the individuals to AA’s beginnings and global underpinnings. It is a testament to these wonderful men, who struggled to help themselves and each other live one day at a time. And in getting to the next day, they helped millions get through the rest of their lives without a drink. Bill and Dr. Bob, recovered alcoholics to the end, founders of AA, endearing overcomers, and friends of humanity.

The play will be at the SoHo Playhouse until May 4th.

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About Carole Di Tosti

Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is a published writer, novelist and poet. She authors three blogs: The Fat and the Skinny, All Along the NYC Skyline, A Christian Apologists' Sonnets. She contributed articles for Technorati on various trending topics. She guest writes for other blogs. She covers NYC trending events and writes articles promoting advocacy. She was a former English Instructor. Her published dissertation is referenced in three books, two by Margo Ely.