Huntington's "Ether Dome": Going Under

Ken Cheeseman, Richmond Hoxie, Tom Patterson, Bill Kux, & Greg Balla in "Ether Dome"
(photo T. Charles Erickson)

If historical drama is your thing, you’ll surely find yourself going under the spell of “Ether Dome” by Elizabeth Egloff now being performed at Huntington Theater Company (a co-production with Alley Theater, La Jolla Playhouse and Hartford Stage Company). Even if this type of theater isn’t typical of the sort of play you prefer, the story of the discovery of ether’s use as a surgical anesthetic makes for a marvelously gripping mystery. Egloff has recreated the convoluted tale of this search for operative pain relief with an eye towards resolving the contentious battles for the allocating of credit for the revolutionary idea that would forever change the surgical world. It centers around the complicated relationship between Hartford dentist Horace Wells (Michael Bakkensen) and his student, budding young entrepreneur William T. G. Morton (Tom Patterson). In investigating the dynamics of their involvement with one another, Egloff along the way comments on the commercialization of medicine, the evolving ethics of research and development, the attribution of scientific contributions involving many sources and resources, and even the relegation of females to the periphery of a male-dominated society. It’s a lot to cover in a single play, but by and large Egloff succeeds with wise choices and a wide perspective, and unexpected doses of humor (some successful, some not). Even if, to use the most obvious comment, the work could use a scalpel here and there, its almost three hours (with two intermissions) go by swiftly, are relatively painless, and certainly won’t put you to sleep.

The action of the play takes place over three years (condensed from the twenty-five year real life story) in Hartford, Paris and of course Massachusetts General Hospital (referred to, anthropomorphically, as “the General”). After some graphic demonstrations of how barbaric even minor dental surgery was before the advent of anesthesia, (one scene featuring local treasure Karen MacDonald as the ever-patient Mrs. Wadsworth), the various stages in the eventual discovery of pain relief are covered. These primarily involve the venerable Founder and Chief of Surgery at the General, Dr. John Collins Warren (the impressive Richmond Hoxie), his surgiphobic cohort Dr. Charles T. Jackson (the amusingly pathetic William Youmans), and their peers at the General, Drs. Gould (Ken Cheeseman), Hayward (Bill Kux), and Bigelow (Greg Balla). Very much on the sidelines are the women in their lives, especially the supportive Elizabeth Wells (Amelia Pedlow), referred to by her husband as “Little Mother”, and the delicate Lizzie Morton (Liba Vaynberg). Also featured are Lee Sellars, Matthew Barrett, Veronica Barron, Nile Hawver, Nash Hightower, and Mac Young. All of them make for an exceptional ensemble, with some standouts. Patterson makes Morton a believable con man (if a bit too boyish at the beginning) with a worthy if tormented mentor in Bakkensen’s Wells, and Pedlow manages to create a memorable anchor as Wells’ long-suffering spouse. As for the others, with so many of them jockeying for a position in history with their self-proclaimed credit for the momentous discovery, it makes for a veritable ether parade.

Under the direction of Michael Wilson (former longtime Artistic Director of Hartford Stage Company), the play lives up to its subtitle, “A Grand Exhibition Produced on the Dramatic Stage with No Expense Spared, Showing the Exhilarating Inventions of the Medical Mind.” Adding to the impact of the work are some impressive technical credits, from the superb Scenic and Projection Design by James Youmans, to the apt Costume Design by David C. Woolard, complex Lighting Design by David Lander, and eerily effective Sound Design by John Gromada and Alex Neumann, (with considerable original music by Gromada).

The concept of excavating the truth behind all of the historically suspect versions of how and by whom the process of discovery took place, and “who deceived whom”, while it might sound dull on paper, is as one of the characters proclaims, “a leap…this is no humbug.” Rather, it’s a fascinating journey, with a literate script, lively direction and a cornucopia of delicious deceit, betrayal and corruption, all that makes theater so grand. As for the future of this play, one can only say, break a leg.

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