THEATER | Despite flaws, Illusion’s “Bill W. and Dr. Bob” is insightful and uplifting


Throughout history, millions of recovering drunks all over the world have been gratefully indebted to the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous for the miracle of getting their lives back. So have their loved ones. People who’ve scoffed and said, “Bunch of rummies, what’s the big deal? You want to stop drinking, you just straighten up and put a plug in the jug” don’t get it. They don’t realize that alcoholism is a disease—a behavioral cancer, if you will—to which sufferers simply are subject. It’s a sickness that can’t be cured, but can be arrested with treatment that, diligently applied, is one hundred percent effective. Even those who’ve seen themselves saved from alcoholism can’t quite explain and the wisest of them, when asked, “How does it work?” will simply say, “It works just fine.” They are not being coy. They are merely telling the truth.

bill w. and dr. bob, presented through november 1 at illusion theater, 528 hennepin ave., minneapolis. for tickets ($15-$30) and information, see

With Stephen Bergman and Janet Surrey’s Bill W. and Dr. Bob comes an opportunity to take a look the two fellows, Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, who long ago fought like hell to save themselves and with the support of their wives, Lois and Anne, wound up changing a great deal of the world. You get to glimpse how key elements of the recovery process for both AA and Al-Anon got put in place and you get a rough idea of how hard it was for Bill W. and Dr. Bob to stick to their guns at a time when what they were advancing what amounted, in many eyes, to a crackpot notion. You get a rough idea of how hard it was to reach other alcoholics and to, in fact, not fail themselves. You gain something of an appreciation for the timeless truism that observes: Religion is for those who’re afraid of going to Hell, spirituality is for those who’ve already been there.

There are stronger scripts dealing with alcoholism, plays like The Country Girl and Come Back, Little Sheba; movies like The Lost Weekend and Days of Wine and Roses. That’s because doctor and novelist Stephen Bergman (under the pen name Samuel Shem) and psychologist and Buddhist teacher Janet Surrey are out of their depth for the first act of Bill W. and Dr. Bob. They spend the whole time on exposition and only in the final moments before the first curtain show signs of anything actually happening. Fortunately, the engaging second act fulfills that promise, delivering dialogue and behavior where there was merely conversation and information.

The direction by Illusion Theater founder Michael Robins is pedestrian, sometimes clunky, but doesn’t ruin the production, which features a solid cast of standout Terry Hempleman (as Dr. Bob), Philip Callen, Carolyn Pool, Beth Gilleland, Michael Paul Levin, and Angie Haigh. Ultimately, flaws and all, Bill W. and Dr. Bob is an insightful, uplifting experience—whether you’ve been a diehard drunk, a social drinker, or never even touch the stuff.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.

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