Alcoholism is an illness that destroys careers, health, relationships, families, and lives. It keeps both children and adults from growing up strong and functional. Alcohol endangers and kills people, sometimes even when used in moderation.
And I can be cynical, snarky, and insensitive (though not quite this bad), so the first thing I probably noticed about the very popular (and, it turns out, very good) Bill W. and Dr. Bob, last time the national tour passed through town, is that it's presented in Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre's Marquee Room, which is right next to the bar. Seriously, the lobby is huge, yet the bar could not be closer unless it were literally inside the theater.
Prather Entertainment Group, which presents this tour, is Broadway Palm's parent company. They run dinner theaters in three states and also tour a show to other venues around the U.S. from time to time. Usually it's a big foofy musical, but Bill & Bob is a full-length episodic drama (with some extremely -- and purposefully -- comedic moments) based on historic events, and the company is knocking it out of the park.
Honestly, you don't have to be affiliated with or even supportive of the recovery movement to have a wonderful theater-going experience here. If you are, though, you'll be in the company of thousands upon thousands of alcoholics, addicts, their loved ones, and treatment professionals who pack houses for this show.
Fans range from people who see a whole lot of theater to people who've never been to a play before. Staff at other venues share anecdotes of stationing someone in the lobby to tell audience members what intermission is and that there will be more to see if they come back. (Not that there's anything wrong with never having seen a play -- and to be fair, many plays don't end Act I with any sort of sign that you should come back, even if you attend the theater regularly.)
Co-author Jeffrey Bergman was, before this play premiered in 2007, best known for his books about the training and practice of doctors (for which he used the pen name Samuel Shem), but he and his wife, Janet Surrey, were taken by the fortuitous, somewhat random-appearing events that led to the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous and have crafted an extremely relatable, compelling story. Stars Matt Zimmerer and Richard Davis Springle are simply fascinating as two exceptional men whose contribution to modern life was almost lost in their illness and despair.
Deborah Z. and Tom Ross Prather's production design makes deft use of individual rotating panels that enable swift and effective scene changes under a delightful mix of ragtime, jazz, and swing recordings coordinated by Loren Strickland. Everything, including Jim Conti and Mary Anderson's costumes, looks historically accurate, as well as a bit shabby and sad in mood -- a dreary plateau to be overcome by a Big Idea that's a typically American synthesis of ideals and raw practicality.
The supporting cast is strong, as well, and Jillyn Jacobs (as every woman other than the leads' wives) is just remarkable as several very different people. And so are her wigs. I've literally never seen fake hair look this good outside of a female impersonation event.
Zimmerer is entirely dynamic and charming as Bill W., and Springle gives us a gruffly adorable Dr. Bob. The script and the acting both make it completely clear that each man was an intelligent, successful professional about to lose everything, with education, confidence, and pride getting in the way of the surrender that generally must accompany successful treatment of substance abuse. It seems as though each needed a companion and mentor as difficult yet enthusiastic as himself.
Despite the complexity of the issues, the action is easy to follow and fun to watch, even though the seriousness and suffering never recede into the background. It's a relatively long play (not a four-hour epic or anything like that), and a bit of fatigue started lapping at my brain somewhere in the second half, but I was watching a struggle playing out, and some art asks you for a little work. In fact, the main message of Bill W. and Dr. Bob is that sharing your problem with people who've had similar experiences -- one person at a time, if necessary -- helps like nothing else can, and when you think you're asking for help, you're probably providing it.
Bill W. and Dr. Bob continues through Sunday, November 7, at Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre, 5247 East Brown Road in Mesa. For tickets, call 480-325-6700. The $35 admission includes a buffet dinner, with a limited number of show-only tickets available for $20 each. Special fancy versions of that favorite A.A. beverage, coffee, are available for separate purchase, along with most other things that humans drink. The dining room can be warm, and the separate seating area for the show can be chilly, so dress in layers.