The “Bill W. and Dr. Bob” Play Is Here to Educate

The “Bill W. and Dr. Bob” Play Is Here to Educate

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Bill W and Dr. BobGigs don’t get cooler than playing the devil, so back when I was cast as Lucifer in a “Mystery Cycle” put on by my college’s Medieval Society, I figured I was pretty damn chill (for someone in a Medieval Society). Mystery Cycles, for those of you not defined by dorkdom, were traveling plays enacting Bible stories for a public hungry for tales of drama and redemption. My devil-days are long behind me, but in the Soho Playhouse’s new NYC production of Bill W. and Dr. Bob, booze is the demon. And it’s a shape-shifting SOB who compels human beings “to do the things that kill them.”

Watching a preview performance of the production (which is playing in Manahattan through January 30th before moving to Austin, Texas), I realized that in many ways the show is a modern mystery cycle crossed with the sensibility of a Capra movie. Like the Cycle plays, it’s based on a Big ol’ Book, a seminal, multi-storied text written in stilted language. As for the Capra-corn, here are folkloric figures like desperate moneymen (Bill, described as “having the ego of the Chrysler building”), straight-talking dames and a likeable, down-home doc with a not-so secret firewater habit. Plus, the story is about the creation of a system for living that excises politics and class in favor of brotherhood.

When the two men finally meet, after years of separate struggle with alcoholism, dissimilarities melt in the face of their shared struggle. Their conversations are revelatory. Dialogue with another drunk calms Bill’s arrogance, and is a balm on Dr. Bob’s terrible sense of shame.

Bill W. and Dr. Bob was first produced off-Broadway in 2007. Now the story of the two men who founded Alcoholics Anonymous (and their emotionally-drained wives, who founded Alanon) is back with a new mission: the production is on an international tour funded in partnership with the NYU Langone Medical Center. While in New York, the play will be part of Langone’s initiative on alcoholism and its treatment. “We believe this play can be used as a tool to help increase the focus and training of medical staff and students on the diagnosis and treatment of this disease,” says Robert Grossman, Dean and CEO of Langone. (According to The New York Times, among many other publications, this has most definitely been the case.)

Medical staff and students will view the production and take part in related conversations on alcoholism. Former Harvard professor and psychiatrist Stephen Bergman, who co-wrote the play under the name Samuel Shem, says this plan was “the dream of a lifetime.” Along with co-writer Janet Surrey, Shem first encountered the Big Book in 1986, and knew its dramatic and historical content could ensure a great tale. As of 2015, the production had already been shown around the world and in 35 states but this is the first time it’s been so closely linked to increasing knowledge about addiction within the medical profession.

Artistic Director Darren Lee Cole notes that in 2013 the show ran at the Soho Playhouse for 11 months (pretty astonishing when you realize that off-Broadway shows average three weeks). That gave Cole and Shem—each of whom have homes in Costa Rica—the confidence to insist the play also be presented in Spanish so they could reach that large and under-served community. The cast consists of bilingual Costa-Ricans and Americans who alternate between English and Spanish, depending on the date and time of the show. After New York, the production will travel to Austin, Texas, Mexico and Costa Rica.

Shem savors how the recovery community has embraced the show. When the curtain rose and Bill W. introduced himself with, “My name is Bill, and I’m an alcoholic,” the crowd shouted back, “Hi, Bill!” Later on, when the likable Dr. Bob is barely finished with the DTs, a mean drunk—described as someone who’d get “angry at a tuna fish sandwich”—throws a glass of gin in his face. A woman near me shouted, “Agh!” and grabbed her friend’s arm. I loved that, not to mention the fact that this production is reaching an audience that didn’t feel like frequent theatergoers.

Since half of all tickets are free to members of the recovery community, the audience sort of seemed like they were just people chilling in a meeting. A few people brought in snacks and spread out in their chairs. Others switched seats as the play moved along, wanting to get closer to the action. Cole told me he has to stand at the door during the interval to tell people, “It’s not over—there’s a second half!”

So while the production was endearing (though, like Bill and Bob, still finding its legs), I found I kept looking at audience members’ faces. With features illuminated by stage lights, their expressions were rapt. It reminded me, even more than the actual dialogue onstage, that this story is not about a book or a movement, about language or even education. It’s about two people who changed, forever, how people learn to battle the devil and win—even if each victory is just for today.

For tickets and info, go to BillWandDrBob. Photo courtesy of Karsten Moran; used with permission.

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Dana Burnell

Dana Burnell has written for The London Times Sunday Magazine, The Guardian Weekend Magazine and Inside New York, among others. A former Editorial Assistant at Harvard Review, she’s received Mellon Foundation Grant and two Fiction Fellowship Grants from Columbia University. She’s written a novel, Mistaken Nonentity, about a lush obsessed with Barbara Stanwyck who finds herself living a film noir, which is repped by the Martha Millard Agency.