‘Ether Dome’: A Moving, Harrowing True-Life Drama (5 Stars)

“Ether Dome” Written by Elizabeth Egloff; Directed by Michael Wilson; Produced by Huntington Theatre Company in the Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for The Arts, 539 Tremont St., Boston, MA. Performances through Nov. 23rd.

It is a rare and wonderful thing when a theater company gets everything so right in a stage presentation. This co-production of the Huntington Theatre Company, Alley Theatre, Hartford Stage and La Jolla Playhouse has done just that, fittingly right here in Boston where so much of the real-life drama unfolded at Massachusetts General Hospital over a hundred years ago. So many of the elements of great theater have come together beautifully to make this a “Must See” show of the early 2014-2015 Boston theater season.

It starts with a fascinating story that incorporates a myriad of issues, from public health to the Hippocratic Oath in the face of profits. Director Michael Wilson learned of the story of a Hartford, Connecticut dentist named Dr. Horace Wells who had discovered the pain-masking properties of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and his protege, William Morton who had received most of the credit for recognizing an alternate solution – ether. Wilson approached playwright Elizabeth Egloff (herself a native of Connecticut) to commission a play about the men, but the tale grew in the telling and expanded to include the Massachusetts General Hospital and its doctors in Boston.
Add accomplished actors, such as Michael Bakkensen as a very likeable Dr. Wells and his “enthusiastic” student William Morton (played by Tom Patterson). Both men bring depth and a believable multiplicity to their characters’ personalities without it ever feeling conflicted. Richmond Hoxie plays the elitist Dr. John Collins Warren with the pomposity expected of a successful Harvard professor and founder of the MGH, yet he also manages to show us the self-doubt and all too human side of a man suffering through the horror of his own patient’s suffering. The entire cast was likewise perfect in their roles. The lovely Amelia Pedlow is a steady presence on stage and garners sympathy in her role as the wife of ill-fated Dr. Wells. Liba Vaynberg as Lizzie Morton gives us a peek into her character’s troubling behaviors without diminishing her character’s affability.

James Youman’s scenery and projection design was brilliant. Scenes changed smoothly and swiftly from beautiful outdoor venues to cold and claustrophobic operating rooms with the help of gorgeous projector work and imaginative moveable paneling in the background. It was a great idea to populate the balcony of the theatre with actors for the operating room (Ether Dome) scenes. The original music from John Gromoda was appropriately eerie and ominous at times and his sound design added to the already great stage work.

It is hard to imagine life before the early 1900’s, when real surgery did not exist due to one very major problem – the patient in any operation was awake and aware, and very much feeling the pain of the incision. How could a doctor hope to be anything but a glorified butcher, much less “surgically” precise when the subject was writhing and screaming, being held down by a group of burly men – or worse – strapped to a table barely able to move. Most “operations” were actually just amputations to halt infection, and many subjects died from the shock. The problem was how to deliberately make a patient unconscious in a controlled (safe) manner for an extended period of time while an operation was performed. As it turns out the answer to the problem had been around for about 300 years in the form of an organic compound known as Ether. But for various reasons – and this is part of the drama of the story – it was not yet being utilized in medicine.

This is the story of man’s rise from a very bleak period in the human condition: “Surgery” just before the discovery (and acceptance) of the humane power of ether and other gases like chloroform that allow us to sleep through the most painful violation of our bodies we might ever experience. The story is also about the human frailty and weaknesses that prolonged that suffering for all the wrong reasons. While the subject matter might seem bleak and not for the squeamish (at times there were audible gasps and groans from the audience) the producers and director Wilson understand that the story itself carries the weight of unspeakable pain and suffering, thus it is told in an understated way that fits the production perfectly. Elizabeth Egloff’s story captures all the drama, politics, relief and suffering of the times. Not just the suffering of the patients but that of the doctors who are called upon to play ‘God’ and administer the suffering for the sake of survival. Fittingly, some questions about the true discoverer of anesthesia are not clearly answered here just as they never will be known through the fog of time so many years later. Check out this fantastic historical drama at the Calderwood Pavilion! For more info, go to: http://www.huntingtontheatre.org/season/2014-2015/ether-dome/