How a Play About the Founders of AA Saved My Life

By Dillon Murphy 01/10/16

A new production of the play Bill W. and Dr. Bob opens in New York, presented in both English and Spanish.

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Two years ago I saw the play Bill W. and Dr. Bob in lower Manhattan and it changed my life. No joke. An old friend called me up and said, “Considering the changes in your life, maybe you’d like to come and see this?” I had been back in the city for less than a week. Having just made it out of Wyoming with the sheriff on my tail and a growing list of locals that wanted to hurt me, I was relieved to be back in my hometown. Before Wyoming, I had said to a different friend that I thought I needed to do something about my drinking problem. She was very helpful and led me to a guy who started to take me to his AA meetings. Now this guy was a heck of a guy but I was having none of it. I just couldn’t begin to accept that I was an alcoholic. I could not see myself living in this world without drinking. I went to the occasional meeting almost always drunk and not paying any attention. Then, I went off to die in Wyoming.

Thanks to the play about those two alcoholics, and that slightly open window of willingness in my head, my life changed for the better.

My denial was large and in charge. My alcoholism was turning me into a volcano in people’s lives. I fought long and hard with the bottle and I couldn’t, wouldn’t ever let it win. Even after losing everything and everyone, I resisted the diagnosis. During my first five days of going to meetings in New York I tried to control my drinking, limiting myself to a pint of vodka and a coffee cup full of wine before trying to push myself into a dreamland, which was almost impossible considering I was freshly fully off Suboxone and (unconsciously) weaning myself off 30 years of hard drinking. Thoughts like "Maybe if I just don’t drink in New York," or "How could I ever go a day without drinking?" still circled in my head like vultures about to swoop in and eat the body.

I had told a few people that I was going to AA before I was really going to AA. When I got back from Wyoming I realized that I had left the impression that I was already getting help. I was really just trying to get them off my back with that old American standard, “I’m going to AA,” and some bought it, including my buddy (a non-alcoholic) that got the tickets to the play. Thus, the invite to the show.

I remember the simple way, especially the Dr. Bob character, would say, “Don’t drink. Go to meetings.” It seemed so easy. That got through to me. I remember the actor playing Bill looked a lot like my brother. I texted him a day later to tell him what a great part it would be for him. I remember one actor playing multiple roles and what fun that looked like. I remember the backdrop of the first act was a bar and it looked good. I remember wondering why the heck Lois didn’t just leave this guy. I remember it was genuinely funny. Mostly though, I remember Bill’s struggle and his ultimate surrender.

I went back to my parent’s apartment that night. I was in my early forties and at that point had to live with them in the apartment I grew up in. I walked into my room and I did exactly what the actor in the play did. I lifted my chest up to the sky and I begged The Great Mystery to help me. I was hopeless, afraid and in a tremendous amount of pain. It was the next day that I began to live in the world without a drink, one day at a time. That was two years ago today, Monday, January 11, 2014.

Just to make the whole thing even weirder and more uncomfortable, three days later I found out that the apartment I surrendered in, the apartment I grew up in, was the address right next to the address of Town’s Hospital where Bill had his broken, belladonna-influenced “spiritual awakening.” I suppose everyone, everything and the kitchen sink was screaming at me that I was an alcoholic. It just took me a long time to accept it.

All of that happened, and thanks to the play about those two alcoholics, and that slightly open window of willingness in my head, my life changed for the better. Even the locals of Wyoming will tell you that.

A new production of the play Bill W. and Dr. Bob opened in New York last Saturday, January 8. It returns Off Broadway at the SoHo Playhouse after an 11-month, 251 performance run in 2013-2014. (The first Off-Broadway run was in 2007 at the New World Stages.) Presented in English—and also for the first time ever in Spanish—this iteration of the show is meant to reach a wider audience. This time around, the NYU Langone Medical Center is backing the project as a way to educate the public, while celebrating and inspiring recovery. Half of the seats at every show will be donated to those in recovery. There will be talkbacks after each show led by the playwrights, the NYU Professor of Medical Humanities and other representatives from the school. Furthermore, NYU Langone will be hosting additional seminars where members of the cast will perform pieces of the show to medical students to complement their pre-clinical and clinical studies.

Bill W. and Dr. Bob is the story of the two men who pioneered Alcoholics Anonymous, and their supportive wives, who founded Al-Anon. Directed by SoHo Rep’s Artistic Director Darren Lee Cole, it is produced and co-written by Samuel Shem and Janet Surrey, both experts in the fields of healing and recovery. It will be performed this time by three American actors and three Costa Rican actors. After the New York run (to January 30), it will hit the road again, heading to Austin, Texas, Costa Rica and Mexico City. Half of all tickets will be given away to those in recovery as well as NYU Langone medical staff, faculty and students who are working on diagnosis, treatment and sobriety sustainability methods.

Despite its intent to help educate the public however, this is no after-school special. Benjamin Watson, the actor who plays Dr. Bob, told me that at the very start of the rehearsal process he asked the director and the playwright if they saw the production more “as a means to tell a story or to educate.

“The answer was essentially both, but with the emphasis on telling the story first and allowing the rest to take care of itself. As an actor, it is essential to discover, in the moment, what the characters do without the foreknowledge of how it would succeed or fail. So with that, I focus on being as honest as I can in portraying the character, and let the story take care of the educating.”

Melody M. Vargas who plays the character known as "Woman," (one of the wittier and more magnetic highlights of this production) says, "I wouldn't say that we're focusing on educating the audience. We're trying as best we can to tell the true stories—as they were written by the playwrights—of these historical figures whom many will be familiar with and some will be meeting for the first time. Subsequently, I have approached my characters with the responsibility that I think many actors do when they play real people—to try to be as true to them as you can based on the research—but also to work with your director and your fellow cast-mates to create characters who can fit into, be understood within, and move along the larger context of the play.”

Finally, Samuel Shem, the co-writer, put it to me quite frankly: ”When we wrote the play, starting in 1986, we realized we had to do two things: stay as true as possible to the authentic history, and write a damn good play. No one, in AA or not, has ever found a historical error (there is a small one that no one notices); and critics’ and people’s verdict is now in: it’s a great play. Being 'educational' is just one of its strengths—dispelling the myth, for instance, that AA says you have to believe in God, that it’s a religious program. (No, it’s a spiritual program: as Ebby says to Bill: 'You don’t have to believe in God, you just have to admit that you’re not God.') But having the sponsorship by the greatest medical school in the USA—NYU Langone Med, to use it as the focus of an educational 'Initiative on Alcoholism and its Treatment' is wonderful.”

If you've read Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers or AA Comes of Age, or any of a dozen AA histories, or seen My Name is Bill W. with James Woods and James Garner, (or indeed sat through any AA meeting with some whippersnapper who has read those books, eager to impress), this will be old news, freshly presented. The night we saw it they were still working out the kinks and the production was nowhere near as powerful as it was two years ago—the actors were still finding their feet. But the bones of the script remain powerful, the intent of the show is worthy and the unfolding of the familiar tale is timeless.

It's not religion, it's two drunks talking to each other, not drinking one day at a time and passing on what they’ve learned to others. A couple of drunks, like myself, that turned it around. Or as the audience member behind me said—while the actors were still trying to deliver their lines (after he stopped talking on his cell phone to say, "Yeah, I'm at the theater, no, I'm watching a play, yeah, it's pretty good, okay, I'll talk to you later.")—"That's the truth right there. Yeah."

Go to www.sohoplayhouse.com for tickets and www.billwanddrbob.com for more info.

Dillon Murphy is a regular contributor to The Fix.

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