April 2010 Issue
The Cleveland Play House celebrates an Ohio success story by bringing the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous to the stage.
Two strangers are standing on the precipice of self-destruction, each ravaged by a condition, which, at the time, was shrouded in secrecy and shame. Through an extraordinary set of circumstances, they meet in Akron, Ohio.
The result: A movement that has changed the lives of generations of members worldwide.
Clearly, this fortuitous encounter was one filled with courage and survival. Yet, muses playwright Stephen Bergman, it took more than 60 years to bring the poignant drama surrounding the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous to life on stage.
“The American theater had kind of given up on stories by and large,” recalls Bergman, by phone from his home in Newton, Massachusetts. “There were all these little vignettes instead.
“But the story of Alcoholics Anonymous
is absolutely amazing. And it deserved to be told in a new way.”
So Bergman, who’s also a psychiatrist, and his wife, clinical psychologist Janet Surrey, decided to do just that. Their production, “Bill W. and Dr. Bob,” comes to the Cleveland Play House
April 9 through May 2.
“The play very eloquently and elegantly captures what the two men discovered –– that this is a disease people have through no fault of their own,” says Cleveland Play House associate artistic director Seth Gordon, who’s
directing the work.
The seemingly providential collaboration between New York stockbroker William Griffith Wilson and Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith, an Akron proctologist, is one A.A.’s faithful followers know by heart: In 1935, Bill Wilson took the train to Akron to apply for a job with the National Rubber Machinery Company. The deal fell through. Depressed and not wanting to partake of the libations the Mayflower Hotel bar offered, Wilson — an alcoholic determined to stay sober — decided to seek help from a pastor selected randomly from the Akron phone book. The recipient of his plea, The Rev. Walter Tunks, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, suggested Wilson call Henrietta Seiberling, a member of the Oxford Group, a religious assemblage dedicated to the belief that people had the power to change their lives. Seiberling — daughter-in-law of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. founder Frank Seiberling — arranged for Wilson to meet her friend Bob Smith, who was also grappling with an addiction to alcohol, in the gatehouse of Stan Hywet Hall, her family’s estate.
The doctor reluctantly agreed to talk with Wilson. What began as a 15-minute get-together lasted six hours, and continued a few blocks away in the Smith residence at 855 Ardmore Avenue. It was there the duo penned the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous, and where the first meetings were held. Today, more than 2 million devotees around the world adhere to the Twelve Steps toward sobriety the men developed.
“The creation of A.A. is about so much more than alcoholism,” Gordon explains. “Yes, it’s about the struggles the men go through and the way they find salvation. But it also centers around the more universal theme that we can fix ourselves through service to others.”
“It is,” he adds, “miraculous.”
So, in many ways, is the evolution of the play itself.
It began in 1986, when Bergman and Surrey read a biography about Bill Wilson. They were overwhelmed by the message it conveyed.
“It’s the great American success story,” explains Bergman, “which demonstrates how the power of mutual connection can heal people.”
The couple, who work extensively with alcoholics, were captivated by Smith and Wilson’s fellowship. Prolific writers in their own right (Surrey has authored several psychology books, and Bergman pens medical novels under the pseudonym Samuel Shem), they were determined to share the beginnings of AA with theater audiences. The two spent four years traversing the paths the founders walked, visiting Wilson’s boyhood Vermont home, attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and touring Stan Hywet Hall and Dr. Bob’s home, which is now a museum.
Bergman and Surrey completed the first draft in 1990. The play enjoyed success at their hometown theater in Newton, and at the 1995 international A.A. convention, held in San Diego. A New York production was in the works.
“And then, as these things tend to,” Bergman reflects, “it all fell through. Our agent died, and nobody thought the subject matter was worth producing.”
So “Bill W. and Dr. Bob” sat on the couple’s desk for nine years.
A small announcement in The Boston Globe
five years ago caught Bergman’s eye: The New Repertory Theatre was opening a 400-seat auditorium in nearby Watertown, and director Rick Lombardo was looking for new works to stage. With fingers crossed, Bergman sent him the script. Lombardo loved it.
“And as they say,” the playwright adds with a laugh, “the rest is history.”
“Bill W. and Dr. Bob” went on to break box office records for the New Rep in 2006. A year later, the play moved to New York, where it ran for 154 performances off-Broadway. The New York Times called it “insightful.” Bergman and Surrey received the 2007 Performing Awards Award given by The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, a group fighting the stigma accompanying addiction.
“Ours is a story that should encourage any writer,” Bergman says. “That if you believe in something, you should never give up on it.”
Gordon isn’t surprised by the accolades the play has generated.
“So many people know an alcoholic or are struggling with the disease themselves,” he says. “‘Bill W. and Dr. Bob’ offers hope through a very human portrayal of how making life better for others can also make life better for ourselves.”
“It’s a lesson,” Gordon adds, “that we can all take to heart.”
The Cleveland Play House
8500 Euclid Ave. Cleveland 44106
House of Hope
Dr. Bob's Legacy Lives in Akron
The sign over the front door says “Welcome Home.”
And to the more than 20,000 visitors who enter 855 Ardmore Ave. each year, it is.
For it was here in Dr. Bob’s house, now a museum, that the group Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935. Akron proctologist Robert Smith and New York stockbroker Bill Wilson crafted the 12 steps that more than 2 million people live by today –– including many of the guests who stop in to pay their respects. In deference to the program, their last names are neither asked for nor offered. But the pride and gratitude each exudes are no less heartfelt.
“Dr. Bob saved my life,” says Mike D., who makes the pilgrimage to Akron each year from his home in Ontario, Canada. The octogenarian, who’s followed the program for 30 years, is thankful the unassuming clapboard dwelling is preserved.
“It’s really something to be here,” he says. “Dr. Bob’s presence is everywhere.”
Operations manager Ray C. and his staff of 14 “awesomely dependable” volunteers make sure the ambiance remains much as it was 75 years ago.
“Our goal,” says Ray, “is to give the impression that Dr. Bob and his wife, Anne, are off at an A.A. meeting and will be back soon.”
A pot of coffee percolates on the stove. Tommy Dorsey’s “Song of India” plays softly on the big-band-era Philco console radio in the dining room, next to the manual typewriter where Alcoholics Anonymous –– the “Big Book” outlining the principles of recovery and featuring stories about overcoming the disease –– was edited. The library alone represents a league of nations: Since the “Big Book” was published in 1939, it’s been translated into 48 languages.
“This is truly,” Ray says softly, “a place of miracles.”
When You Go...
Dr. Bob’s Home
855 Ardmore Ave., Akron 44309