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AA members flock to a new play about the group's founders

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Playwrights Janet Surrey and Stephen Bergman read the biographies of Bill Wilson and Bob Smith twenty years ago, and were overwhelmed by their stories. (Ben Strothmann)

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Bill W., played by Robert Krakovski, and Dr. Bob, played by Patrick Husted, bond over their experiences as alcoholics. (Carol Rosegg )

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Bill W., played by Robert Krakovski, and his partner, Dr. Bob, played by Patrick Husted, try to convince another alcoholic, Billy, played by Marc Carver, to join Alcoholics Anonymous. (Carol Rosegg )

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At a turning point in the play, Dr. Bob, played by Patrick Husted, apologies to his wife, Anne, played by Kathleen Doyle. (Carol Rosegg )

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Bill W., played by Robert Krakovski, meets his wife, Lois, played by Rachel Harker, for the first time since he left her to launch Alcoholics Anonymous in Akron, Ohio. (Carol Rosegg)

It seemed slightly unusual as the lights dimmed in the off-Broadway theater on 50th Street in Manhattan for the two principal actors to walk out on stage, introduce themselves to the audience and get a warm greeting right back. “Hi, Bill,” the audience called out in unison. “Hi, Bob.”

But “Bill W. and Dr. Bob” is not your usual theater production, and it does not attract the usual theater crowd.

The play is about the two men who founded Alcoholics Anonymous, the support group and treatment program for alcoholics that has a worldwide membership of some 2 million. When it opened last year in Boston’s New Repertory Theatre, it appealed instantly to a die-hard fan base comprised mostly of members of AA and Al Anon, the support group for relatives of alcoholics.

The same crowd jammed the theater when the play traveled to Akron, Ohio, last summer, the city where the real Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith first experimented with their method of drying out problem drinkers. And they’ve now come to midtown Manhattan, where the play is being performed for an indefinite period at the New World Stages theater.

“Picture the survivors of the Titanic,” said Peggy B., an accountant in Manhattan and an alcoholic who said she had been sober for 34 years and who, like most of the people interviewed for this story, requested that her last name not be used, in accordance with the group’s tenet of anonymity. “That’s what we are; all these other people drowned, but we survived,” she said. “I believe everything I am is because I’m sober. I created Peggy by being sober.”

The play, written by Stephen Bergman and Janet Surrey, a husband and wife team from Newton, Mass., is basically a docudrama taken from Chapter 1 of “The Big Book,” the bible of AA that tells of its founding and lays out the organization’s famous 12-step treatment program.

As dramatized in the play, Bill Wilson, a New York City stockbroker who lost his career and almost his wife and health because of his chronic drinking, takes a business trip in 1935 to Akron, Ohio, where he meets Bob Smith, a surgeon who needs sedatives in the morning to calm his drinking jitters enough so that he can operate on patients.

Their first conversation, which supposedly lasted for six hours, results in the decision to join forces and help each other stay sober. Shortly thereafter they decide to help other alcoholics as well.

The play depicts the chaos alcohol created in their lives and in their family relationships, and it shows the moving apologies they eventually deliver to their spouses for the years of torment they inflicted on them.

The play was conceived 20 years ago by Bergman, a psychiatrist, and Surrey, a psychologist, from their experience treating alcoholics in their respective practices. “This is a play that is deeply about the suffering of isolation and addiction and the potential for healing and transformation,” said Surrey, who is the author of many books and papers on psychology and addiction.

While reviews have been mixed, audiences have waxed enthusiastic, praising the play for its accurate portrayal of the way people struggle to recover from addiction. Some people have seen it as many as 10 times.

“The play is truly authentic,” said Susan of Massachusetts, a middle-age woman with red curly hair. “When you first stop drinking you think your life is over. It’s really only the beginning of a new life without alcohol,” she said.

Susan attended the opening night performance on March 5 with her husband, Paul, a cowboy-hat-wearing Vietnam veteran who 30 years ago was released from a hospital where he had been admitted for alcoholism, and was taken by his friends to his first AA meeting.

“She was sitting there in the room,” Paul said of Susan, who at the time had been only a few months sober. “That’s how it started. We were running around in the same group.” Three years later they married.

“Every once in awhile you need a kick in the pants to get yourself moving, and that can only come from certain people,” Paul said, as he looked meaningfully at his wife.

Equally as important as the kick in the pants, they said, is having a worthy role model, a role that Bill Wilson and Bob Smith still fill, though they both died long ago--Bill in 1971 and Bob in 1950.

Robert Krakovski, the actor who has played Bill W. for the last year, researched the character by reading biographies of the man and by taking a pilgrimage to Bill W.’s hometown of East Dorset, Vt.

“He suffered from severe depression,” Krakovski said, “even after he had stopped drinking. I believe it was just after the first edition of "The Big Book" was published in the late 30s that he suffered a severe bout that lasted almost three years.”

Krakovski, 48, has been a professional actor for 25 years and has appeared in plays around the United States and in London and Edinburgh, Scotland, as well as in the republic of Georgia. “In many ways," he said of old AA members, "they viewed Bill Wilson as a kind of messiah.”

Another AA member in the audience was Clancy I., the managing director of a homeless facility in Los Angeles who was in New York on business and who said he had been sober for 48 years. “I was a terrible drunk who was almost dead, on the street with my teeth kicked out,” he said.

Clancy remembered actually meeting Wilson in 1963, when again he had come to New York on business. He decided he would stop at the main office of Alcoholics Anonymous World Services in Manhattan to see if he could shake Wilson’s hand. He ended up talking with him for an hour, “most of which was spent with me explaining to him how grateful I was,” Clancy said.

Other members who attended the performance said they hoped the play would raise awareness about the birth of AA and decrease the stigma they feel is attached to alcoholics in society.

“If you can be acknowledged by the rest of the world as having a disease that you were born with,” said Alan Tuck, a son of one the producers and an AA member himself, “and if the ‘normies'--that’s what we call them [people who aren't addicted to drugs or alcohol]--can understand this, then that makes it easier for us to get help.”

E-mail: eac2145@columbia.edu