”Hey, let’s go see a play about the founders of AA” isn’t maybe something you expect to hear or get super excited about, right? What? Not your feel good play of the year? Okay, maybe not, never-the-less, San Jose Rep has mounted Bill W. and Dr. Bob which address just such a plot and surprisingly it’s not nearly as depressing or preachy as you might initially think. True, the plot is a bit of a roller coaster, but there’s a fair amount of humor (though somewhat self-deprecating in nature) throughout. If you can stomach the dark moments, there’s a sufficient dose of redemption alongside all the tribulation that serves as your entertainment payoff.
Strong acting certainly makes this play more appealing and I think the most compelling part of this story is that as these two men strive to find a way to deal with their own sobriety they make mistakes, they fail a lot, they operate almost entirely on trial and error, and the story extends to their spouses and how they cope with the effects of the situation.
This show was interesting, however it dragged for me. There seemed to be too long of a lead up before the two men meet and get to work making their mark on history. I was less interested in these men apart as I was in what they were doing together and that made the pacing feel really sporadic and long in several places. Now, I know that’s a bit of a catch 22, if you didn’t get to know the individuals and their separate struggles, you might feel it was too quick to be personally invested in where their paths intersected. No matter, I wanted more of the combined efforts and less of the drama leading up to the solution.
I think a large part of my trouble with the pacing came down to familiarity with the topic. As with any theatre experience, the engagement of your audience is certainly enhanced if they connect with the material personally. I didn’t feel I had the proper frame of reference to draw me in beyond what I thought was a well-acted and in most cases probably a realistically written play. For me it didn’t resonate the way I know it did for the opening night audience who, upon hearing the opening line of the play, responded as if they were all sitting in an AA meeting. It was a magical, albeit shocking, theatre moment for me, but I was very much in the minority with regard to my intimacy with the play’s content that night. Not that I’m complaining I don’t have a first-hand alcohol abuse story mind you.
The technical standout of this production for me was the smart and emotive lighting design. Working in conjunction with clever set design and synching up nicely with solid sound design, both bold and subtle lighting choices did everything from drive the scene transitions, to represent actors, to support and underscore the ever-changing moods of the script. An impressive and very effective design on both a conscious and subconscious level.
Overall, a lot of good things going on in this production, but not enough for me specifically to really rave about it. 3 1/2 out of 5 jewels in the review tiara for an interesting visual and conceptual production that probably has a lot more moments of “yes” with someone who maybe has lived closer to the themes of the play. Bill W. and Dr. Bob plays through July 15th at the San Jose Repertory Theatre in Downtown.