Monday, March 4, 2013

Bill W. and Dr. Bob—CoHo Theatre—NW Portland

Nowhere To Go But Up

This production will be playing through March 31st at their theatre space at 2257 NW Raleigh St.  It was written by Samuel Shem and Janet Surrey and directed by Robert Holden (one of the Founders of CoHo).  For further information check out their website at

The play is about the founding members of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson and Dr. Robert Smith.  There have been some rather good film and theatre projects about the effects of alcoholism, notably Days of Wine & Roses, The Lost Weekend, The Morning After and even on the founders, with James Woods and James Garner.

The entire play, covering several years and different locations, takes place on an essentially bare stage with only a cast of six.  Hats off to Robert Holden and his creative team for creating this miracle, as it is rarely confusing.  With this type of setting, it forces the actors to dig deep to explore their characters and allows the audience to become part of that creative process, by filling in the blanks with their imagination.

Both of these men were relatively successful at times in their careers.  One, Bill (Kevin Martin) as a stockbroker and the other, Dr. Bob (Gary Powell), as a surgeon.  They struggled in their own ways with the demons of alcoholism.  Both went through various cures in hospitals and through churches but always falling back on their old ways.  They explain that booze made them feel alive, that they fit in.

It was thought at the time that drinking to excess was a choice.  They embarrassed themselves, their friends, and it was especially hard on their loved ones.  Anne (Sarah Dresser), Bob’s wife, felt that Church and God were the answer.  There was even an organization, The Oxford Club, through one of the churches, holding meetings for such individuals and praying with them.  Bill’s wife, Lois (Kay Ethen), was equally humiliated by his being out of work and taking monies from her, meant for food and the mortgage, to finance his drinking binges.

They both knew that there was something wrong and wanted desperately to do right by their family and friends but there was some important ingredients missing from these “cures.”  It wasn’t until they met face to face that they jointly discovered the missing pieces to the puzzle.  This is the most powerful scene in the play, as they talk through their pains and discover the magic formula to truly break them free of the “demon rum.”

Once they discover that it is a disease that one is born with, a plan begins to take shape.  They also know that they have to divorce themselves from a specific church or God and put their faith in simply, “a higher power.”  And another very important aspect is that they need another drunk to talk with, when the temptation to drink becomes too powerful.  It is only another drunk that can truly understand the torment that they are feeling.  Eventually, Alcoholics Anonymous is born.  And this play is a journey toward that end.

The performances are all outstanding.  The highlight is Mr. Powell as Dr. Bob.  The expressions on his face and the body language, coupled with his amazing acting, all give birth to a powerful and moving performance.  His scene with the first meeting with Bill W. is an acting tour-de-force for both of them.  And Mr. Martin, as Bill, gives a highly charged performance, especially in his attempts to reconcile his life with his wife.

Matching this two individuals are the long suffering wives.  Ms. Dresser lets the part simmer within here until she finally explodes and tells her husband exactly what she is going through.  And Ms. Ethen is all anguish and tears, which you truly feel, as she attempts to hold her relationship and life together.  Both stellar performances.  And Melanie Moseley and Alan Hakim do very well in playing the various other characters.  They would have been even better had there been more distinction in costumes pieces/props to define their roles.

And, as mentioned, Mr. Holden’s direction is first-rate, especially in his use of the space.  This is a play with a very serious subject at its roots.  It is an important and compelling story.  I would recommend it.  If you do go, please tell them that Dennis sent you.

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