Bill W. and Dr. Bob: AA drama lacks spark

Bill Wilson (Jim Cunningham) and Dr. Bob Smith (Stephen D'Ambrose) in Bill W. and Dr. Bob.
Bill Wilson (Jim Cunningham) and Dr. Bob Smith (Stephen D'Ambrose) in Bill W. and Dr. Bob.
Photo by Lauren B. Photography
Aside from being a terrible disease that has ruined -- and continues to ruin -- millions of lives, alcoholism has been a driving topic of modern drama. Directly or obliquely, play after play has dealt with the wreckage that alcohol and, in more recent years, drug abuse can cause.

So it begs the question, why is Bill W. and Dr. Bob -- the drama about the trials of the two men who started AA -- such a dry experience?

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The script from Samuel Shem and Janet Surrey certainly doesn't do any favors. We do get a solid sense of these two men -- a medical doctor and a stockbroker -- who were able to find the support they needed to shake off their drinking in each other. The characters around them, however, don't have the same depth. I wanted to know what made Lois and Anne, their long-suffering wives, tick.

In fact, the telling gets most interesting when it hints at the toll that the two-man crusade is taking on Lois and Anne. Again, this doesn't get enough room -- or have enough life -- to take it beyond the surface into something that might offer some insight, and needed drama, to what we're watching. Instead, the story has a hard time elevating beyond the Lifetime movie of the week level.

The whole evening, directed by Illusion's Michael Robins, feels static and reserved. I'm not necessarily looking for explosive drama, but I'd like to feel a stronger engagement with the characters as they take their journey.

The actors do their jobs. Jim Cunningham gives New York stockbroker Bill Wilson a heavy-duty bluster as we watch his spiral downward and attempt to dig himself out. Stephen D'Ambrose's Dr. Bob Smith is more reserved -- he is a secret drinker after all -- but the actor brings out the decades of pain that have built up. His breakthrough, topped off with an admission to all the wrongs he has brought to his wife, is beautifully played.

As Lois and Anne, Carolyn Poole and Laura Esping are hamstrung by underwritten parts, but they find their own moments to deepen the characters. Their best moments come near the end, when the women are on their own and invite the wife of the man the two men have targeted as the third member of their crusade. The three (Kate Guentzel plays the other women in the play) realize that they have just a strong a need to share as their alcoholic spouses. The acting in these moments is sublime, and easily the best of the evening.

I don't mind a bit of education and improvement with my theater, but I also want to feel something along the way. There are moments where Bill W. and Dr. Bob work, but they often get crushed down by the dull storytelling and staging.


Bill W. and Dr. Bob
Through March 30
Illusion Theatre
Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts, 8th Floor

528 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
For tickets, call 612-339-4944 or visit online.
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Illusion Theater

528 Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55403


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