The Origin of AA: An Intimate Portrayal at Sandy Actors Theatre
Hello, my name is James, and while I am not an alcoholic, I have known more than my fair share. I spent too large a portion of my formative years closely associated with men and women who passed for normal in the daylight hours, only to turn viciously manipulative or bestial as the long night fell and their trembling hands reached for the bottle. I am all too familiar, as are so many people, with the staunch denials or charming brush-offs of the next day. Accordingly, I am incredibly grateful for organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous, which exist to steady those shaking hands and keep them from forming fists, saving both the afflicted and the affected in the process.
The foundation of the AA organization, the faltering, early crusade of its founders, and a chronicle of those men, and their wives, all serve as the basis for Sandy Actors Theatre’s current production, Bill W. and Dr. Bob. Despite some mostly forgivable flaws (some owing to the infuriatingly inconsistent script) it is an effective production with well-meaning enthusiasm, some genuine and beautifully articulated moments of truth, and, perhaps most significantly, a powerful awareness of the importance of the show’s (and the organization’s) mission and message.
The bulk of story is structured as a kind of biography centered on the two engaging figures of the title; men juxtaposed by the erratic behavior of their “functional” drunkenness and the long-suffering, aching patience of their wives. The plot unfolds in spotlight testimonials, suburban breakfast table tableaus, and more traditional cutaway scenes of the men “on the road”, but the best moments by far are those which occur when the actors converse in simple chairs placed near the audience. In a format reminiscent of the AA gatherings themselves, the script’s clearest truths come out hesitant, unadorned, and yet startlingly beautiful. And following the impressively composed, one-on-one discussion which closes the first act, it seems probable that these scenes were envisioned first, with the rest of the script added later as foundation. This is not to say, however, that the remainder of the show is without worth. There is a fair sense of repetition in some of the scenes over the course of two hours, and, oddly enough, the trappings one would expect to see in an AA origin story (the steps and traditions, the Serenity Prayer, etc.) are presented secondary to the men’s spousal issues and life stories. Fortunately, director James Bass moves things along at a good clip and allows the actors room to roam, breathe, grow, and demonstrate the humanity of their characters.
In addition to directing, Bass portrays Bill Wilson (or Bill W. in AA parlance) with such unwavering commitment to the man’s alternating enthusiasm and consternation that it’s impossible not to be swept up in the character’s mounting campaign, even as it leaves his wife struggling and alone. Bass well illustrates the reckless (if well-intentioned) drive of a former financial man who failed, fell from grace to very near rock bottom, and then, as part of his mission for redemption, created something much larger and longer-lasting than himself. Bass’ giddy excitement as the organization gains momentum is infectious, and his calm, yet weary confessions concerning Bill’s addiction are some of the best moments in the show.
Bill’s friend and partner, Dr. Bob, is played with a similarly methodical attention to detail by Kevin Fenster. His Dr. Bob is a study in mannerisms and quirky behavior. Drink may maddeningly transform him from man to man-child, but also manifests a deliciously dry humor, and Fenster puts it to good use. There is great physicality in his role, and a strong conviction of belonging to the era of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Through study of the man himself, or simply a connection to his role, it feels as though, if asked, Fenster could readily supply any casual fact about the history of the real-life figure he portrays.
Erin Bass has quite a challenging part as Bill’s wife, Lois. Years of anxious nights and broken promises have taken much of Lois’ will, but still she struggles on. And it is in the portrayal of this frayed spirit that Bass excels. In a voice of command which nonetheless houses the ghosts of every crumbled argument, she conveys a sweet and steady temperament that is quietly heartbreaking. She is somewhat less convincing in moments of high, explosive drama, when called upon to rage across the kitchen floor or confront her husband in a bitter reunion. Some of this, however, owes to the script’s lack of an emotional buildup as it attempts to cover too much ground too speedily, along with Lois being chained to an oddly formal speaking pattern that seems only to affect the female leads.
Like Lois, Bob’s wife Anne has endured years of emotional torment as a result of her husband’s drinking. And like her fellow actress Erin Bass, Deann Fenster adeptly shows how the small, inevitable, cracks ultimately shatter a sustained façade of patience and civility. With a quiet voice and meek manner, she has learned to hide her hope far beneath an armor of disapproval, and mostly ignores its muted shine. Fenster too, though, has some trouble with scenes of heated confrontation, as her quiet voice hardly seems to change in pitch or intensity. A kind of reasoned pleading works for her the majority of the time, but there are instances where it seems as though her strained, ever-present calm should surely break, but does not.
The remaining characters, whom the script simply calls “Man” and “Woman”, are played by Patrick Roth and Kelli Lacey, respectively. These two have the impossible task of portraying roughly fifteen characters between them, and imbuing each with traits unique enough to easily distinguish one from the other, sometimes mere minutes apart. And though this is a ludicrous demand, and frankly a terrible way to maintain audience immersion in a drama (albeit one with comedic overtones) both actors come astonishingly close to pulling it off. Their character creations are, in nearly every case, fully formed people with obvious temperaments, implied backgrounds, and a style all their own even when showcased for a matter of moments.
Bill W. and Dr. Bob is a combination of some quality acting, fascinating depictions of actual historical figures, and sturdy direction which gathers a collection of roving scenes together and straightens them into line. There are moments of great gladness, of empathetic sorry, and some needed touches of humor, and all of it is done very well. But there is also a sense that the show is, at times, grasping to name its exact theme, or wavering on whether to present its protagonists as stalwart pioneers of thought or feel-good Abbott and Costello types out for an entertaining romp. For every turn of phrase which feels lifted from stirring literature, there are sloppy attempts at wise, poetic expressions that feel more like the unrefined concepts of a rejected Hallmark card. To a great degree the issues I had with the show came from a script uncertain of exactly what it wanted to be, what to focus on, and how to best align its ideas, but the cast and crew managed to overcome that vagueness and create something special, energized, personal, and most of all, important.
Bill W and Dr. Bob is the kind of show that invites conversation, and which immediately prompted the testimonials of audience members themselves as the house lights brightened for intermission. It is a production which strains so valiantly and doggedly to be something spectacular that even the attempt, if not always fully realized, is worthy of admiration. As theater, it is generally engaging and occasionally outstanding, if slightly uneven or intermittently aloof, but as a presentation of ideas forged from deep affection and hard work, it is a thing of rough grace and raw beauty, and is to be commended.
You can catch Bill W. & Dr. Bob at Sandy Actors Theatre September 7th - 30th.
Tickets at https://sandyactorstheatre.org/