Written by Stephen Bergman
Directed by Ronnie Marmo
It was opening night at the NoHo Arts Center. I walked in and sat down for the play.
The theater was small, intimate, and absolutely packed. Every surface that could be sat on, including the stairs, had a person waiting to see this show. I felt as if I was in AA myself at that moment...somehow it was all so expectant of salvation, reason, connection. The stage was set sparsely, which added to the feeling. There was hardly any set decorating or style on stage. This made more sense later as I realized this one sad little room was to be the backdrop for every location in the play, but at first it just made me feel I was at my rock bottom and isolated, even amongst the throngs of excited cattle. This was all appropriate. I felt I was exactly where I should be to see a play about two self-professed drunks that find salvation in each other and start what we now know as Alcoholics Anonymous.
The play started like a tennis match, two men on opposite sides of the stage speaking to the audience. Lit up and then cast in darkness, back and forth until I could barely take anymore. This made me feel less like I was watching a play or even in an AA meeting, but more like I was watching a debate on who was going to win the “Saddest Life Award.” Suddenly, we were thrust into the show. After, of course, the first of many agonizingly long transition “black-outs.”
Let me first discuss the high points of the show. When Melissa Kite, playing Lois Wilson, entered stage for the first time, I believed she would be the worst part of the show. It seemed her character was incapable of an honest moment and she was trapped in some god awful commedia dell’arte piece. She and her scene partner had confused excitability and youthful optimism with gesticulation and volume. However, in her very next scene, she sat alone writing in her diary. Although inherently a very clichéd moment, she delivered it with such honesty and emotion, I realized I was actually holding my breath. She felt, and in turn I felt, her pain. This nuance was not a fluke, as I wondered. She continued to grow and evolve into quite possibly the strongest actor on that stage. Her anger varied from a quiet rage to explosive frustration. Her sadness felt small and scalable while growing into a depression-like state of resignation. And from all this she found strength and I believed her when she burst into realization and epiphany. I was with her and she was glad to show me the way.
Laura Lee, playing Anne Smith, immediately hooked me. From her first appearance on stage, I wanted to see more. She played it small and honest, something I hadn’t seen much of at this point in the show. She understood the concept, missed by some that shared the stage, of bigger does not necessarily equal better. As her performance went on it stayed generally strong, with few missteps particularly in her bigger emotion scenes. However, even in her inconsistency, I liked her and felt for her. She was able to tap into the feminine power of a woman dealing with an addict husband, whom she loved desperately. I excused her over-dramatics at times, and followed her journey. When I saw that maternal instinct come out in her was when she was at her finest.
Rounding out the female cast was Elizabeth Kimball, whom played a variety of female characters. This is not always an easy task, as I have seen actors regurgitate the same mannerisms and characterizations and expect the audience to do the work of pretending they are unique characters. Elizabeth, however, knew what she was doing. She was like a surgeon, carving out specific characters with varied physicalities, coping mechanisms and vices. Her accents changed, but it went beyond that. Her cadence and breath changed giving her the ability to flesh out the show with human characters and not stereotypes. Not only could she do the work of five actors, she made them relatable and real. I felt each one’s emotional journey. The first moment I truly understood her uncanny ability was when she played Henrietta. I found myself watching her face as others were speaking. Her subtle eye movements, facial changes and tiny lip quiver made me feel she was there with the characters. She was listening to them and they were affecting her. I felt her goodness and her faith. I found myself wanting her to feel the same for me, to look at me and understand me the way she understood Dr. Bob. It was magic.
Bill Lippincott, playing Dr. Bob, was wonderful. His performance, however, was more inconsistent than his female counterparts, which led to an awkward beginning. He would go from on honest moment to an over-the-top reaction that seemed less an instinct and more of a forced direction. But as the show went on, he settled into the role and delivered the performance I had hoped for. He struggled at times with letting us in completely to his most painful emotional moments, but always turned it around with a look…a breath. He found the moments he could excel in to compensate for his weaker moments. There is a definite art in that. His humor was top notch. The writing had built in moments to cut the tension and seriousness of it all and he played with it. It was refreshing to have someone that understood timing take charge of those moments.
As you have probably gathered, it was the women that really stole the show. They dug down deep and worked hard, seemingly effortlessly so, to show us truth.
Ronnie Marmo, playing Bill Wilson, was also the director of the play, as well as the producer and the Artistic Director of Theater 68, the theater company putting on this production. There was some genuine talent in there, especially when the play allowed him to use his humor. He seemed to live for those moments and bathe in them. He had a gleam in his eye that made me feel we were in the presence of something great. He did have a few fantastic, serious moments too. In one particular scene in Act 2 with Dr. Bob he said, “The monster is our disease.” I gasped. It was so heavy and perfectly delivered. One line and I felt a power and honesty I hadn’t seen from him yet. His final monologue of the show showed him in his true glory. He was heartfelt, wretched and pained with an optimistic glow. It was one of the moments, I believe, he believed the struggle. I could see a truly talented actor, sporadically giving me moments of genius.
Lastly, we have Jack Noonan, playing various male characters throughout the show. The first two characters had me at hello. I was supportive and felt they were unique and nuanced. He stood tall and drew my eye to him when he spoke. However, the sheer number of characters seemed to weigh him down. He has talent, his epiphany at the end, was the moment he soared. He allowed himself to breathe and feel and just be in the moment, quietly expressing his pain and desire for betterment.
With all this said, I would highly recommend seeing this show. I have been involved in the acting, directing, producing, management, teaching and the critical side of this industry for over 20 years. I am particular, yes. But, I do know talent when I see it. This show was filled with talent, some more obvious and well expressed than others, but talent nonetheless. And since the show is double cast, it offers two chances and perspectives on the world-changing saga. Bill W. and Dr. Bob deserves a look and support. There are moments in this show that can change lives and remind others of how far we have come. It gives a glimpse of lives we have led or know someone who has. This is about a human experience that we need to see laid bare before us, we need to be a part of, and we need to understand and empathize with if we are ever to look at an addict with anything more than disdain.
They deserve that…and so do we.
Bill W. - Ronnie Marmo & Brian Foyster
Dr. Bob (Smith) - Bill Lippincott & Charles Hoyes
Lois Wilson - Melissa Kite & Rosie De Candia
Anne Smith - Laura Lee & Carol Stanzione
Man - Jack Noonan & AJ Brody
Woman - Elizabeth Kimball & Terry Kaye
Producer/Director – Ronnie Marmo
Associate Producer – Katy Jacoby
Assistant Director – Rosie De Candia
Production Designer – Danny Cistone
PR – Sandra Kuker PR
Lighting Design – Aaron Craig
Light/Sound Operator – Caroline O’Brien, Heidi Rhodes, Thea Grabiec
Postcard Design – Ray Cosico
Playbill Design – Sandra McHale
Box Office Manager – Chad Addison
Runs: EXTENDED THROUGH JULY 31, 2016!
Plays: Thursdays & Fridays 8pm; Saturdays 3pm & 8pm; Sundays 2pm & 7pm
General Admission: $25
Buy Tickets: theater68.com or 323-960-5068
Running Time: Approximately 120 minutes; there will be one 10 minute intermission
Where: NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood, CA 91601
Bill W. & Dr. Bob
Written by Stephen Bergman
Directed by Ronnie Marmo