First of all, there's the magnificent set: row upon row of liquor bottles, interspersed with small lamps and some other household items, on shelves that rise 20 feet high and cover the entire expanse of the Cleveland Play House stage. This inspired creation by scenic designer Robert Mark Morgan provides the perfect dreamscape and/or nightmare vision for Bill W. and Dr. Bob, the story of the two drunks who started Alcoholics Anonymous.
Since those bottles never go away, gleaming seductively as they overwhelm the artifacts of daily life, they serve as an ideal metaphor for the lure and snare that alcohol presents for addicts. The script by Stephen Bergman and Janet Surrey is just as well crafted, and thanks to solid performances — and one outstanding one — the show avoids being either preachy or treacly
Set largely in Akron, where Dr. Bob Smith lived and practiced as a surgeon, and where he fortuitously meets Bill Wilson, the play employs a series of short scenes to deftly span the decades from the 1920s through the 1940s.
The subject matter could be dry and righteous stuff, but the play is saved from that fate through the character of Dr. Bob. This is one souse who despises religion, can't abide personal confessions, and who has seemingly resigned himself to a life of drinking binges interspersed with shaky-fingered surgeries and repeated visits to a sanitarium.
As Dr. Bob, Timothy Crowe is entertaining and thoroughly compelling, growling his sarcastic put-downs as he fully inhabits this intelligent yet desperately flawed character. Commenting on the uptight and devout Henrietta Seiberling, the rubber-industry heiress who helps bring Bob and Bill together, he says, "Mrs. Seiberling is the only woman who could ruin Christmas with religion."
After the out-of-control inebriation of both principals is established, the play shows how the two meet cute at Akron's Stan Hywet Hall and begin to work out the details of saving people like themselves. This includes the "one day at a time" approach and the core concept of one lush helping another.
Weaving some hilarious moments into a story that is solidly grounded in spirituality, the playwrights show that these two men were not geniuses. They just kept trying different approaches until they found one that clicked.
As smooth-talking salesman Bill W., Sean Patrick Reilly is suitably brash and outgoing. But he also has serious moments with his wife Lois (Denise Cormier), who is a reluctant participant in this new crusade. And playing a series of different women, Heather Anderson Boll etches indelible portraits of Mrs. Seiberling, a couple of barmaids, and the wife of Bill and Bob's first convert.
There are a few occasions that strain the bounds of credulity, like Bill W. being visited by the glowing presence of God. But we can believe one thing for sure: The organization Bill and Bob began has helped to rescue people from misery and premature death. And this play delivers that story with a memorable, theatrical punch.