How Bill W. and Dr. Bob got on the wagon, on stage

By Jerry Tallmer

Spotlight up on a man in a pinstriped suit at one side of the stage.

 “My name is Bill W.,” he says, “and I’m an alcoholic.”

 Spotlight up on a man in shirtsleeves at the other side of the stage.

 “Dr. Bob, alcoholic,” he says abruptly. “Good t’be here sober. I grew up in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, ’bout 90 miles from where Bill W. was born and raised. Good state to come from, if y’wanna start a program for drunks, Vermont.”

 That’s the way co-authors Stephen Bergman and Janet Surrey first saw it in their heads when they — husband and wife — decided 20 years ago to try to write a play about the two men who together started Alcoholics Anonymous, and that is how the long-gestating play indeed begins. “Bill W. and Dr. Bob,” after a sold-out run in the Boston area, is now in previews toward its March 5 opening at Off-Broadway’s New World Stages in the heart of a Sin City that has known an alcoholic or two over the years.

 “Bill W.” — Wall Street securities analyst William Griffith Wilson (1895-1971) — was a smashed-up wreck until one day in 1935, when, in the Akron, Ohio, parlor of a lady bountiful named Henrietta Sieberling, he was introduced to “Dr. Bob” — Dartmouth graduate Robert Holbrook Smith (1879-1950), an Akron surgeon who, to his terror, often operated when plastered.

 Dr. Bob, that day in Henrietta Sieberling’s parlor, sourly stated that he could only stay 15 minutes. The two men turned out to have three things in common: Vermont, and booze, and guilt.

 “What town you from?” Bill W. asked. “Saint Johnsbury,” the doctor reluctantly allowed. “I’m from East Dorset,” said Bill W. Six hours passed before they finished talking. You could call that day, May 12, 1935, the first meeting in history of Alcoholics Anonymous. The symbiosis — the connection between one human being and another, whatever their differences — provided the spark, the impetus.

 What was now needed was for Bill W. and Dr. Bob — and their wives — to seal the formula by bringing a third party, or parties, to similar confessional, similar riddance of the monkey on one’s back. That wasn’t easy to do, to find, and it’s what most of Stephen Bergman and Janet Surrey’s play — the first time they ever wrote anything together — is all about. For better or for worse, it also has a bit to do with God.

 Stephen Bergman, a psychiatrist who for 30 years was on the Harvard University medical staff, is also — under the pseudonym “Samuel Shem” — a playwright and novelist. Janet Surrey is a clinical psychologist and author who — an ardent believer “in the power of connections” — has spent 30 years, as she says, “in studying how human relations heal.”

She was saying this, in fact, over the phone from their home in Newton, Massachusetts, and stressed that connections were particularly important for women.

 Yes, said the person on the New York end of the phone, I’ve noticed that.

 “Oh you heard about that?” cut in Stephen Bergman, flat-voiced. They have been married 17 years.

 It was out on the rocks atop a cliff overlooking the ocean at Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1986, that Bergman first was struck by the image of a man on one side of a stage saying: “My name is so-and-so and I’m an alcoholic.” Ms. Surrey did Bergman one better. “I envisioned the curtain going up, with two men, one on either side, each saying: ‘My name is so-and-so and I’m an alcoholic.’ ”

 Says Stephen Bergman: “We realized you couldn’t write a play about just one of them. There had to be an X plus a Y.”

 Says Janet Surrey: “To make the connection there had to be something beyond the self, somewhere the individual ego is let go.”

 The script has been through a great many versions, readings, performances, since then. The cast remains, as in Massachusetts, Robert Krakovski as Bill W., Patrick Husted as Dr. Bob, Rachel Harker as Bill W.’s wife Lois, Kathleen Doyle as Dr. Bob’s wife Anne Smith (perhaps the real hero of the whole story), and Marc Carver and Deanne Dunmyer in other roles. The director, here as before, is Rick Lombardo.

 A concern from the start was, says Bergman, “to make sure AA World Services would not object.” To which end, every program carries the note: “Publication and performance of this work does not imply affiliation with nor approval or endorsement from Alcoholics World Services Inc.” Nor, for that matter, speaking of connections, does it imply any experiential connections of their own to AA.

 For this show the management has instituted a pay-what-you-can policy on the first 20 tickets sold in the first hour the box office is open each day. Within that span, anything over $1.01 gets you in.

 Have a shot, anybody?


 BILL W. AND DR. BOB. By Stephen Bergman and Janet Surrey. Directed by Rick Lombardo. Now in previews toward March 5 opening at New World Stages (Stage 2), 340 West 50th Street, (212) 239-6200, or (800) 432-7240.

Note: I must have had a few too many last week when I spelled Walter Cronkite with a K.