Review: 'Pass it On' offers illuminating look at AA (7/28/12) Charles Runnells / News-Press
Feature: New drama sheds light on beloved founders of Alcoholics Anonymous (7/26/12) Charles Runnells / News-Press
In 1935, two drunks met in Akron, Ohio and changed the world.
Bill Wilson was an alcoholic.
Bob Smith was an alcoholic.
They met in a desperate bid to stay sober.
Six hours later, the foundations of Alcoholics Anonymous were laid.
Actors Gary Kimble and Richard Springle, both recovering alcoholics themselves, have been part of the world of "Bill W." and "Doctor Bob" for the past few years.
Their latest production, still in the development phase, played five shows over three nights at the Foulds Theatre in Fort Myers. "Pass It On: An Evening with Bill W. & Doctor Bob" offers an intimate look at the founding of AA from the perspective of two men who struggled - and almost died - before finding sobriety.
Kimble and Springle starred in off-Broadway play "Bill W. & Doctor Bob," written by Samuel Shem and Janet Surrey, which played at Broadway Palm in August 2009. "Pass It On" contains some material from that show, but goes farther. This latest effort traces the pair's drunken escapades, their eventual meeting, struggles to help other alcoholics, writing "The Big Book" and how they slowly codified the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous.
If it sounds fascinating, it is. Compelling it is not. In their drive to be both slavishly faithful and relentlessly uncritical, Kimble and Springle lose sight of the material's dramatic potential.
The evening stretches to more than two-and-a-half-hours, with the first 45 minutes given to an unnecessary in-depth historical biography of Bill W. and Doctor Bob. The pair do little more than offer up a dry historical narrative. The show doesn't contain "scenes" so much as various chunks of each man's life. Facts pile upon facts in an endless litany. Laughs do pop up; drunks are funny, after all.
On the one hand, it is difficult to criticize "Pass It On" too harshly. Kimble and Springle have elevated the story of Bill W. and Doctor Bob to something of a cottage industry. They have toured with the show for several years and used it as an anchor for their own personal sobriety. This latest version is an attempt to trim the off-Broadway play down to a two-man version that they can share widely at a wide variety of venues.
There are obvious positives. The recovery community embraces the show; multiple sellouts welcomed the pair to Fort Myers and the familiar "Hi, Bill" and "Hi, Bob" greetings rang out Saturday night. Both Kimble and Springle's personal struggles - recounted in a brief talkback - give the narrative additional power and emotional heft. If the show never never evolves, it will always be a shining, powerful touchstone for those who have either found or are searching for sobriety.
Yet, I believe there's something more to the material than just a list of benders, sloshed conversations and whiskey sours. I also think "Pass It On" could reach a far wider audience than just the converted faithful - similar to how "Next to Normal" shed light on mental illness. This would mean a retooling to slice whole chunks of the "this happened, this happened" narrative.
As it stands, "Pass it On" never rises to more than a recitation of facts and dates. Moving forward, the pair must decide what the show actually "IS." Is it a fairly straightforward history lecture? Or is it a play, with scenes, an ebb and swell of emotion and characters? If a lecture, then "Pass It On" needs pruning and refinement, nothing more. If a play, it needs a radical re-think.
A play needs scenes and key moments to illustrate the history of the AA movement while building a dramatic arc for viewers. Little of that exists now. The two characters don't even "meet" on stage until a point close to the end of the first half. Then, in the best moments of "Pass It On," (and not coincidentally, a scene from the original play), Bill W. convinces Doctor Bob that the two men are linked by the demon of alcohol.
Even then though, at what would seem to be a natural break - the men's realization that they are indeed kindred spirits - the play launches into another 20 minutes of self-indulgent dialogue.
Kimble and Springle are dynamic performers, attracted to and deeply involved in their work - and the passion shows. There's a story there - an interesting one - but the current Wikipedia-entry format does little to keep viewers engaged.
Web site for "Pass It On: An Evening with Bill W. and Doctor Bob" www.passitonbillwdrbob.com
Facebook page for "Pass It On: An Evening with Bill W. and Doctor Bob" Facebook: Pass It On Bill W Doctor Bob
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Hi, my name is Chris, and I'm a choco-holic. Email me, firstname.lastname@example.org, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.