Snap out of it, why dontcha? It’s only booze in a bottle sitting on a shelf. How hard can it be just to turn your back and walk away?
Those of us who have never known the peculiar pull of drink or drugs might take our seats at HATTheatre with an air of smug superiority.
But in this tiny stage space, plaintive light falls upon two gentlemen whose particular pain found safe harbor in an alcoholic haze. Bill Wilson and Bob Smith are not weak, but lost, and who among us hasn’t felt that quiet grief?
Turn then to “Bill W. and Dr. Bob,” the haunting, heartbreaking story of the two men who founded Alcoholics Anonymous more than 80 years ago.
Opening with brief confessional sketches from each man in the manner of AA meetings (“My name is Bill …”), this Acts of Faith Festival entry then flashes back to the late 1920s, as Wilson, a razzmatazz New York stockbroker, tries to juggle market risk, marriage and a drinking habit born of service in World War I.
The 1929 market crash and his exasperated wife, Lois, push Bill to make amends in fits and starts, eventually launching him on a crusade to reform every other New York alcoholic he can find.
Meanwhile, Bob Smith, a circumspect Akron, Ohio, surgeon, copes with his own shame and self-loathing by cycling through days of clinical work, wild benders and repeated sanitarium visits to dry out from “wet brain.”
But through a chance meeting, Bill and Bob discover that the mere act of one “drunk” talking to another might help each man look to the future and leave the past behind.
Keeping one eye on the story’s inherent pathos, director Scott Wichmann also keys in on comic moments that follow Wilson and Smith’s often-bumbling attempts to bring a third alcoholic into the fold.
Staged against a blacked-out background with gray props as if to resemble the psyche turned in on itself, “Bill W. and Dr. Bob” requires the Lennon and McCartney-type duo to present a full harmony of personal despair.
Actor Chris Hester communicates Bill’s peculiar mix of ego and shame with tremulous lips that dominate a face begging for understanding. As the more muted and contrite Bob, Ken Moretti perfectly nails the physical manner of a broken alcoholic; his dark, faraway eyes are pools of sorrow and regret.
Each of the show’s supporting actors also presents a sorrowful, unadorned face. As Lois, Grey Garrett draws her jaw and mouth tight with impatience over Bill’s habit. Patricia Alli, as Bob’s wife, Anne, uses her furrowed brow to communicate 20 years of marital regret. (Lois and Anne would go on to develop Al-Anon, the program dedicated to aiding friends and families of alcoholics.)
Heavyweight actors David Janosik and Audra Honaker also do excellent work in a variety of roles that include a parade of alcoholics and supporting — if sometimes abused — spouses.
Condensing the “Bill W. and Dr. Bob” history does require the script to indulge in perhaps one too many platitudes and, by focusing solely on male drinkers, the show may link a serious disease to buddy-boy male bravado a bit too closely.
But at its heart, “Bill W. and Dr. Bob” testifies to how humble, human connection may be the only true cure for age-old, corrosive, human loneliness.
Maybe it’s folly to believe that you can save someone from himself. But together, as friends, might we be able to save each other just a little?