Years ago, anyone who was administered laughing gas (nitrous oxide) at the dentist’s office or underwent an operation using ether as anesthesia will never forget their experience. So they’ll enjoy the history infused in Elizabeth Egloff’s new medical thriller, “Ether Dome,” set primarily in Boston’s Mass. General Hospital. It’s shattering to watch medical procedures like tooth extractions and amputations performed on stage, without anesthesia. We shudder and quake, inwardly screaming as patients’ voices echo off every corner of the theater.
Egloff’s story spans 25 years, from 1845 to 1870, but she condensed it into one year, and decreased the large cadre of doctors involved.
Despite her attempts at brevity, theatergoers may not enjoy “Ether Dome’s” three hours, three acts (and two intermissions) of this play about medical breakthroughs and betrayal, discovery and fraud in the mid-1800s. At times, it’s confusing, rushed; other times, draggy and repetitive, but informative throughout.
Director Michael Wilson, former artistic director of Hartford Stage Company, commissioned Egloff to write “Ether Dome,” and, together, they mastered a gargantuan feat, despite these flaws. Wilson helms an outstanding large cast, including Boston favorites Ken Cheeseman and Karen MacDonald.
The medical thriller touting the breakthrough of anesthetics and painless operations is a co-production of Alley Theatre in Houston, Hartford Stage, and La Jolla Playhouse.
Egloff’s credentials for writing this play are sterling. She went to school in Hartford, where Dr. Horace Wells initiated the use of nitrous oxide for his dental patients, but was robbed of his glory by his ambitious student, William Morton.
Egloff’s father is also a doctor; and on a more personal level, she has been treated for leukemia at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
Huntington Theatre Company’s production of “Ether Dome” is also a family affair for Egloff. Her husband, award-winning James Youmans, designed the fantastic set, a replica of Mass. General Hospital’s historic Ether Dome museum-amphitheater, and its superimposed fabulous projections. Egloff’s brother-in-law, William Youmans, portrays Dr. Jackson, whom Morton tricks into giving his discovery of letheon gas - sulfuric ether with oil of orange. Morton then claims and sells the anesthesia as his own product, and creates a method of administering it; then peddles and sells it to hospitals. Although Morton was a fraud and embezzler, he is historically credited with commercializing the use of anesthesia. Morton’s fame rises, but Jackson deteriorates into madness and Wells is destroyed by drugs and alcohol.
Before Dr. Wells’ discovery, nitrous oxide was used recreationally, but he realized its healing properties and began using it to ease his patients’ pain. Unfortunately, when Dr. Wells demonstrates its use in October 1846 at Mass General Hospital’s Bulfinch Building, it goes disastrously; but Morton capitalizes on it.
Michael Bakkensen delivers a stirring portrayal of kindly Dr. Horace Wells, and Tom Patterson nicely maintains Morton’s boyish charm, then strikes effortlessly with his backstabbing and betrayal. At times, Morton sits among us, watching, studying as Boston’s finest surgeons review, demonstrate, exhibit, argue, and politicize medical findings.
David C. Woolard’s elegant period costumes, David Lander’s dramatic lighting, John Gromada and Alex Neumann’s sound effects enhance the play’s authenticity and poignancy.
BOX INFO: Three-act, three-hour medical drama by Elizabeth Egloff, presented by Huntington Theatre Company through Nov. 23, at the Boston Center for the Arts, Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont St., South End, Boston. Performances: Tuesdays-Thursdays, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2,8 p.m.; Sunday, Nov. 9, at 2,7 p.m.,Nov. 16,23, at 2 p.m. only. Tickets start at $25; senior, subscriber, BU community, 35 below, student and military discounts. Visit huntingtontheatre.org or call 617-266-0800