BWW Reviews: ETHER DOME: A Bloody Good Account of the Bad Old Days

Ether Dome

A co-production with Alley Theatre, Hartford Stage & La Jolla Playhouse, Written by Elizabeth Egloff, Directed by Michael Wilson; Scenic & Projection Design, James Youmans; Costume Design, David C. Woolard; Lighting Design, David Lander; Sound Design, John Gromada & Alex Neumann; Original Music, John Gromada; Production Stage Manager, Lori Lundquist

CAST (in order of appearance): Michael Bakkensen, Amelia Pedlow, Tom Patterson, Karen MacDonald, Lee Sellars, Liba Vaynberg, Richmond Hoxie, William Youmans, Greg Balla, Ken Cheeseman, Bill Kux, Matthew Barrett, Nash Hightower,Veronica Barron, Nile Hawver, Mac Young

Performances extended through November 23 by Huntington Theatre Company in the Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org

Two world-changing events are brought to light in Ether Dome, the thrilling new play by Elizabeth Egloff at Huntington Theatre Company. The first is the discovery of ether as an anesthetic in 1846; the second is the institutional transformation of healthcare into big business as a by-product of the first event. To say that both have had far-reaching effects is an understatement, but few would argue the point that the former development is more beneficial than the latter. With Hartford, Boston, and the Massachusetts General Hospital at the center of the story, Ether Dome has special significance for the local audience, offering both a history lesson and theatrical entertainment of the highest order.

Ether is rarely used today, but its advent allowed surgeons to operate without the excruciating pain that patients dreaded, to the point where many people would commit suicide rather than go under the knife or saw. Egloff opens her play with a representative scene of a screaming woman (Karen MacDonald) in the dentist's chair for a tooth extraction. The caring Connecticut dentist, Dr. Horace Wells (Michael Bakkensen), driven by the idea that there must be a way to reduce the pain, attempts to use nitrous oxide (laughing gas) as an anesthetic after experiencing it at an exhibition. At the urging of his student assistant William Morton (Tom Patterson), Wells demonstrates the gas for the MGH brain trust in their surgical amphitheater, dubbed the Dome, but things go horribly awry and he is laughed out of the place.

Morton eventually succeeds where his mentor failed by introducing a compound gas he calls Letheon (after the mythological river of forgetting), a mixture of sulfuric ether with oil of orange to mask its odor. Empowered by his acclaim and fame, Morton takes the bold step of selling licenses to use his product, resulting in patients having to pay if they want medical treatment without torture. Although offended by this practice, believing that it breaks the Hippocratic Oath, the MGH docs, under the leadership of their founder Dr. John Collins Warren (Richmond Hoxie), are more or less held hostage to it. It also kicks off a litany of regrets and recriminations about their own failure to have come up with the idea, especially since Warren's former student Dr. Charles Jackson (William Youmans) was the one who gave Morton a bottle of sulfuric ether to dull the pain when he needed to pull Mrs. Morton's tooth.

After his embarrassment at the Dome, Wells gives up dentistry to become an art dealer. Against the wishes of his devoted wife Elizabeth (Amelia Pedlow), he departs for Paris to acquire European paintings, but achieves renown when he finds the way to control the use of gas and becomes dentist to Napoleon. His ecstasy is short-lived when he returns home and learns of his former student's achievement, especially when Morton ignores his plea to give him some of the credit for his discovery. That competition for credit among the several people involved in developing the anesthesia serves as one part of the core conflict in Ether Dome, but it runs parallel to the debate Egloff crafts pitting ambition versus altruism.

The real-life events depicted in the play spanned the years between 1845 and 1870, but Egloff takes dramatic license to compress them neatly into one year, and she chooses to frame the story with the focus on the struggle and downfall of Wells. In the hands of Bakkensen, the dentist is at once likable and pitiable, the unsung hero in stark contrast to Morton the huckster/opportunist and the surgeons with their superiority complexes. This is not to imply that any of them are one-dimensional. Egloff draws the characters distinctively and the actors' portrayals of their personalities and values are fully realized across the board. Patterson shows signs of Morton's ambition in the early scenes, but he leaves us unprepared for later developments in his arc.

Hoxie is appropriately haughty in his position of power and respect, but equally convincing as the advantage shifts against him. Youmans is terrific as another character who deserves our sympathy, the scaredy-cat surgeon who never wants to be the one holding the knife, and perhaps the man with the most regrets at the end. Numerous physicians have been combined in the characters of Dr. Henry Bigelow (Greg Balla), Dr. Augustus Gould (Ken Cheeseman), and Dr. George Hayward (Bill Kux) and are well-represented by the trio of actors. Lee Sellars shows good range as the pharmacist hawking laughing gas at the exhibition, a merchant hunting down Morton, and a few other small character roles.

The women are relegated to the background in this society, but the playwright gives them their strengths nonetheless. Elizabeth Wells works closely with her husband and gives him counsel and support (if only he would listen to her), and Pedlow makes us take notice of her. Morton's wife Lizzie is a different sort of woman, ostensibly a bit ditzy and one accustomed to being taken care of, but Liba Vaynberg lets us see her internal mettle when the chips are down. In addition to playing the unfortunate highbrow dental patient, MacDonald shifts gears to play a prostitute's maid and nails them both.

Ether Dome is well-written, with unexpected snatches of humor (albeit dark in nature), and Director Michael Wilson establishes a breezy pace for its three acts (each about 40-45 minutes). It moves seamlessly back and forth from Hartford to Boston, as well as to scenes in Paris, New York, and Washington, DC. The focal point of the James Youmans set is the dome above the stage, but a curved back wall with doors and built-in compartments becomes many locales, thanks to Youmans' eclectic projection design. Dramatic lighting (David Lander) and sound effects (John Gromada and Alex Neumann) heighten many of the scenes, and Gromada also contributes original music. David C. Woolard provides an array of fashionable period costumes. As one of four companies involved with this co-production, the Huntington Theatre Company is the only one that can lay claim to being in the town where it all began. We already knew that Boston is a world-class medical Mecca, but now we know the story behind the Ether Monument in the Boston Public Garden and more about the achievements of the venerable Massachusetts General Hospital.

Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson (Tom Patterson, Lee Sellers, Michael Bakkensen, Amelia Pedrow)

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From This Author Nancy Grossman

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