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Arts and Entertainment


A sobering salute to the Akronite and New Yorker who founded Alcoholics Anonymous
Bill W. and Dr. Bob take center stage at the Cleveland Play House
by WKSU's VIVIAN GOODMAN


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Vivian Goodman
 
"The man on the bed" scene
Courtesy of Roger Mastroianni
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In The Region:
The gatehouse of Akron's Stan Hywet Hall was the birthplace of Alcoholics Anonymous. It was Mother's Day of 1935 when a failed stockbroker from New York who had been sober only five months and an Akron surgeon who often operated with a hangover came together to talk for six hours. It was the daughter-in-law of Goodyear founder Frank Seiberling who had brought the two together. The dramatic story of their struggle to recover from alcoholism and found an international movement is now on stage at the Cleveland Play House.
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 By Vivian Goodman and Alex Cox

A play opening on Friday night at the Cleveland Play House puts a chapter of Akron’s history center stage. “Bill W. and Dr. Bob” unfolds the story of two hopeless drunks who meet accidentally, find redemption, and form an organization that saves millions of lives: Alcoholics Anonymous.
Bill Wilson was a failed New York stock broker; Dr. Robert Smith was a respected Akron surgeon, despite his reputation for operating drunk. The AA co-founders relapsed repeatedly before they came together in 1935 to solve their common problem and launch the world’s most successful recovery program.
Cleveland Play House Associate Artistic Director Seth Gordon had long wanted to do this play. “First of all because of its local connection. Alcoholics Anonymous was created in Akron and at least half, if not most of the play, takes place in locations familiar to people in Akron.”
Before rehearsal began, Gordon set up a slide show for the cast and crew, with shots of seedy bars, dirty hotels, sanitariums, Depression-era costumes, and historic sites. There also  were pictures of Stan Hywet Hall – where the AA meetings came together -- and the Mayflower Hotel, where Bill W. first got the notion to look for fellowship with other struggling alcoholics. 
Later, Gordon took the cast on a tour of the locations. He says they stood quietly and soaked up the atmosphere.
 
Setting the scene
In the play, Bill W. is in the lobby of the Mayflower on the day before Mother’s Day in 1935. His business partners have left him after a deal went sour. Back in New York, he had recently joined a religious organization, the Oxford Group, in a bid to get sober. Stranded in Akron, Bill W. makes a phone call to Henrietta Seiberling, the daughter-in-law of Goodyear founder Frank Seiberling.
The play recreates the conversation.
“I’ve been sober five months and I’m… I’m staring at the bar. It looks mighty appealing and the only thing that’ll stop me is to talk to another drinking man.” Henrietta is also a member of the Oxford Group and offers to introduce Bill W. to Dr. Bob, a man the group has been trying to save for years.
The two men meet and share their stories in the gatehouse of Stan Hywet Hall, and set in motion an international movement.
 
Timeless story
Director Gordon says that the dramatic highpoints of the play are in Bill W. and Dr. Bob’s attempts to find a solution.
“They’re both alcoholics in a time when alcoholism was not identified as a sickness. It was identified as a problem you just want to make go away. You just had to be able to stop drinking and of course they weren’t able to,” Gordon said. “ And it’s their struggle to solve that problem without any tools.
“And then they’re stumbling upon a tool and then their struggle to see if it can work on a third person… they realize that this is not an accident for just the two of them. It’s something that might really be able to work for other people and that they should, as they say in AA, pass it on.”
The play climaxes with Bill W. and Dr. Bob making their first convert. They find lawyer Billy Dotson drying out on an Akron City Hospital bed. The two men start off by offering Dotson their friendship.
 “It’s also just a wonderful redemptive story about people trying desperately to cure themselves by being generous to others and that just seemed like something anyone can stand to see.”
 
Where and when:
The Salvation Army and the Greater Cleveland and Summit County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Boards are among the sponsors of Bill W. and Dr. Bob at the Cleveland Play House.
It runs through May 2 in the Drury Theater with pre-show discussions with staff members and post-show conversations led by members of the recovery community at every performance.

Related Links & Resources
Alcoholics Anonymous

The Cleveland Play House

Listener Comments:

Thank you for this article. I wish this could be played in Europe, why not in french !

Here's an unofficial blog (mainly in french) about AA, to whom it may concern : http://www.kreizker.net/


Posted by: anonyme (belgium) on April 9, 2010 6:11AM
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