Sunday, February 19, 2017

Everybody Cut Loose

Saturday nights don't always work out the way you expect them to.

When I'd first gotten tickets for HATTheatre's production of "Bill W. and Dr. Bob," the subject matter made my date decision for me.

Who better to see a play about the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous with than the friend who will celebrate nine years of sobriety this summer? When we'd met in 2009, it was one of the first things he'd told me about himself - no doubt because he was barely a year sober at that point - and since then, I'd watched as he'd created a successful and satisfying post-drinking life.

So successful, in fact, that on Valentine's Day this week, he'd proposed to his girlfriend of the past year and tonight they were celebrating her birthday with a party.

Of course I'm incredibly happy for him and their future, but there went my date.

The friend I then invited had to cancel at the last minute because of a bout of vertigo, so I turned to another play lover who was unfortunately suffering with sinus problems. My final offer was received with great interest but no availability: he was having a dinner party tonight.

Clearly the powers that be intended for me to have a dateless Saturday night, a fact I accepted and exploited (chances are, I wouldn't have suggested to any of those companions that we begin at 821 Cafe, but with just me to please...) with pleasure.

Except I hadn't allowed for 821's proximity to the Altria Theater and tonight's Richmond Forum, so I had to throw back my black bean nachos at record speed before making the drive out Patterson to the sold out theater.

Snagging a single seat in the second row, I landed next to a guy (after tripping over his feet) also on his own, so once he apologized for his big feet, I couldn't resist asking what had attracted him to the play.

"My son is two years sober, but he almost died before he got sober, so I thought this would be interesting," he said. "Plus I got cut loose, so I'm always looking for things to do now." Seems that "cut loose" was his polite way of sharing that he was divorced.

Chatting revealed all kinds of information: that we'd arrived in Richmond within a year of each other, although he'd come from "downstate Illinois," so his move had been greater than mine. That he'd come tonight expecting a traditional stage and curtain, only to be informed what a black box theater was.

As the lights went down, he shared that he'd been to Al-Anon meetings himself, an apt segue to how the play began: with each character introducing himself and his situation in the style of AA meetings.

Telling the story of how two alcoholics - one a New York stockbroker and the other an Akron surgeon but both originally from Vermont ("Vermont is a good place to start a business for alcoholics") - who meet and discover that the road to recovery begins by sharing their story with another person who's been through the same liquor-induced hell, the play explores the early days of acceptance for alcohol as an incurable disease and not just weakness.

And while the production included much self-reflection on Bill and Bob's parts, it was also liberally laced with humor.

Are you Episcopalian?
No, I'm alcoholic.

But they're synonyms, right? And don'r get me started on the knowing and insightful words that came out of their wives' mouths before they started Al Anon together.

Loneliness becomes solitude...

At intermission, my seatmate and I picked up our getting-to-know each other conversation, beginning with his job buying furniture in Vietnam and China for importing here. What he likes about travel and what he avoids. He asked for suggestions on other theater companies to check out and returned the favor with book recommendations.

Then we moved on to our thoughts on the first act. He admitted that he'd done so much reading on the subject of alcoholism and Alcoholics Anonymous that everything he'd seen so far was completely familiar to him.

Broken promises. Blackouts and memory loss. Compromised job skills. Inability to have a successful relationship. But he also mentioned the difficulties of trying to love someone who's been changed by alcohol and waiting for them to come alive again. Of the pain of watching a loved one slowly kill him or herself.

I was finding it fascinating to see how the tenets of AA had evolved as the two drunks, as they referred to each other, had tried to figure out how to best lead other drunks to sobriety. Finding the first one to try it on was the hardest part.

With his innate charm and winning smile, Chris Hester played Bill as a guy who could "talk a dog off a meat wagon" while Ken Moretti's Bob was older, more cynical and completely resigned to a life of lies, hidden binges and drying out. Yin and yang.

Both were heartbreaking in their own way, but also inspirational in their shared desire to show others what had worked for them: talking to someone else who'd been through it and establishing a support network of others who understood the struggle.

"It worked for my son," my new friend whispered as the cast got a standing ovation. "Great meeting you and I promise I'm going to check out some of those theater companies you told me about."

Sometimes you get the ideal date without even doing the inviting.

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