Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron

Bill W. and Dr. Bob
Drury Theatre at The Cleveland Play House

Also see David's review of August: Osage County

Bill W. and Dr. Bob, now running in the Cleveland Play House, is a play about the relationship between Bill Wilson (1895-1971) and Dr. Bob Smith (1879-1950), the men who founded Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

Dr. Bob Smith's house in Akron, Ohio, is a shrine for those who have been ill as an alcoholic and have found relief and release through AA. Wilson, a stock broker, destroyed his career and endangered his marriage with alcohol. Smith, a prominent surgeon in Akron, had to drink to get to sleep and drink before surgery to steady his hands.

In 1935, these men met at Stan Hywet Hall at Henrietta Seiberling's invitation. (Stan Hywet is a large country estate, now sitting on 70 acres, in Akron. The main buildings were constructed between 1912 and 1915 by F. A. Seiberling, founder of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.) During the six-hour long discussion, Wilson and Smith discovered that people who are ill need to talk with others who have the same problem. That discovery opened the door for the holistic medical movement. They also decided that two alcoholics through talk can rescue each other. They set about to find one more alcoholic to rescue. That scene takes place in a hospital room, where they talk to a man who has reached social and political prominence in Akron and loses that success because of his alcoholism. Wilson and Smith moved to start what is now known as AA.

The play deals with relationships and does not attempt to recruit audience members. The playwrights, through the script, don't attempt to teach, nor are they judgmental. They explore each man's relationship with his wife, with each other and in the final scenes, their relationship with other alcoholics.

Stephen Bergman and Janet Surrey (playwrights) are a husband and wife writing team. Bergman, a psychiatrist, often writes under the name Samuel Shem and has written several successful novels. Surrey is a psychologist, with an impressive publication record. Both have dealt with alcoholics in their practice. In addition, Surrey has worked with relationship issues in her practice. They are uniquely qualified to write Bill W. and Dr. Bob.

On opening night, Bergman and Surrey were scheduled to have a talkback with the audience after the performance. I was seated on the front row and could see that Surrey was emotionally moved. She said this was the first time she had seen this production. Bergman had seen the play the night before in the final preview. Earlier, Bergman had told me it was good to see their show performed by a company that had the resources to give it a first-rate production.

The production is, indeed, first-rate. Robert Mark Morgan (scenic designer) has created a large box set that is simply wooden shelves covered with empty bottles that once held alcohol.

Michael Lincoln (lighting designer) created a lighting design that makes the hundreds of bottles beautiful and appealing. The set and the lighting provide an on-going temptation to the two alcoholic characters.

Seth Gordon (director) makes the unique set work as rooms in Dr. Bob's house, a hospital room, Stan Hywet Hall and various other settings. Gordon helped his leading actors develop distinct, intriguing characters. He was superior with the supporting characters who are well played by two actors, Charles Kartali and Heather Anderson Boll.

Sean Patrick Reilly (Bill W.) makes his character brash and his love of alcohol palatable to the audience. Reilly evokes the audience's sympathy by making Bill's craving for alcohol understandable.

Tim Crowe (Dr. Bob) brings to the stage a character who desperately wants to give up alcohol, but can't. Crowe makes his character's need for alcohol a physical demand, almost as the need for food or water.

In this production Reilly and Crowe have perfect chemistry.

Bergman and Surrey have written a powerful script. The play begins and ends with an AA meeting's traditional opening and closing. However, what happens between those brief scenes is mesmerizing drama.

You don't have to be an alcoholic or a member of AA or Al-Anon to enjoy Bill W. and Dr. Bob. This is a good, strong story that is well written, well acted and well produced. This production is what good theater should be.

Bill W. and Dr. Bob at the Drury Theatre at The Cleveland Play House, 85th and Euclid, Cleveland. Ticket sales have been so strong for this production that the run of the show has been extended to May 9, 2010. For ticket information, telephone the Cleveland Play House at 216-795-7000, ext. 4.

Bill W. and Dr. Bob
Playwrights: Stephen Bergman and Janet Surrey
Bill W.: Sean Patrick Reilly
Dr. Bob: Tim Crowe
Lois: Denise Cornier
Anne: Margaret Daly
The Woman: Heather Anderson Boll
The Man: Charles Kartali
Director: Seth Gordon

- David Ritchey

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