“Bill W. and Dr. Bob” — Real-Life Superheroes

We’re crazy for heroes these days. Superheroes everywhere, saving the world with their amazing powers. And their fans are beyond number, critiquing movies and comic books, cosplaying at cons.

Bill W. and Dr. Bob, now at the NoHo Arts Center, takes a different look at heroism. It’s a quiet play about two of the greatest heroes in the modern world. Bill was a New York stockbroker, and Bob was a physician in Akron, Ohio. They were a pair of helpless drunks, confirmed alcoholics for whom no treatment existed.

Somehow, they found each other.

Ronnie Marmo, Bill Lippincott

Ronnie Marmo, Bill Lippincott

Bill W. and Dr. Bob recounts in 22 brief scenes how these two less-than-ordinary guys struggled to help each other stay sober, relapses and all. Along the way they discovered, but by bit, the simple but powerful strategies that became the 12 Steps, the Big Book, and Alcoholics Anonymous. (Their wives created Al-Anon, the recovery program for people whose lives are linked to addicts and dominated by the disease.)

This is not a flashy dramatic tale — there are no rooftop rescues, no car chases, no knock-down drag-out fights. Just people battling an incredibly difficult disease, and centuries of cultural baggage blaming them for having it.

Theatre 68 does an admirable job of keeping it simple. The modest set and accurate costumes, and the subtle sound design, firmly tie us to the look and feel (and attitudes) of America in the 1920s and ’30s.

Brian Foyster* gives us a low-keyed Bill who can suddenly simmer with energy and burst into visionary enthusiasm — manic tendencies being among the demons he had to learn to fight — but never lets go. Bill Lippincott* creates a likeable, educated man who must daily pick his way through a marsh of self-loathing, yet also manages somehow to hang on.

Laura Lee,* as Bob’s wife Anne, bottles her despair inside the gentleĀ  manners of a “perfect housewife,” while Melissa Kite* strains like a thoroughbred against the uncertain bonds linking her to her flailing husband, though she has a successful career of her own. Both actors fill their lightly written parts with such latent fire that when things break, and they start the conversations that will free generations of codependents, you don’t know whether to cheer or weep.

*There are alternating casts.

As 21st-century theatrical art, Bill W. and Dr. Bob seems vulnerable to criticism. It exemplifies the “kitchen-table realism” of the last century, and it never steps into fantasy or breaks the fourth wall. But it’s not about daring new techniques; like A.A. itself, it’s rooted in day-by-day simplicity. Really, how else could this most important story be told?
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Bill W. and Dr. Bob, by Stephen Bergman and Janet Surrey, directed by Ronnie Marmo.
Presented by Theatre 68, at the NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood 91601.

Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00,
Saturdays at 3:00 and 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00 and 7:00,
through July 3rd.

EXTENDED through July 17th.

Tickets: (323) 960-5068, or <www.Theatre68.com>