By Roz Friedman
By an amazing coincidence, I had my teeth cleaned on September 17, the day that I saw a new play at Hartford Stage. Commissioned by Hartford Stage, Ether Dome is a new, large, historic drama by Elizabeth Egloff, directed by Michael Wilson, former AD who has received greatly deserved praise for his work on Broadway. It is based on a true story of Dr. Horace Wells, a dentist who lived and practiced in Hartford in the 1840's and whose statue sits high in Bushnell Park. While the handsome production with a circular Scenic & Projection Design by James Youmans, lit by David Lander, Costumes by by David C. Woolard, and Original Music by John Gromada is appropriately lavish, the plot is so full of holes, it resembles a slice of Swiss cheese. The overly long story, though interesting at times, jumps between discoveries and doctors without completing the development of characters or events.
We first meet Dr. Wells, amiably played by Michael Bakkensen, in his home office trying to pull out all the teeth of a patient, Mrs. Wadsworth, the brave Johanna Morrison. In this grisly scene, blood and screams gush out of this patient's mouth; Wells is assisted by William Morton, his young partner and former student, and his wife, Elizabeth. Unfortunately, Morton, a spirited Tom Patterson, is more interested in attending a luncheon with his prospective fiance's family than to stay and help; Elizabeth, sweet Amelia Pedlow, is full of platitudes. Wells advises his suffering patient to rinse with Turpentine -- ugh!!! -- and wait for her newly-invented dentures.
Soon after, Wells attends a lecture on nitrous oxide, commonly known as “Laughing Gas,” and realizes that this substance could be used to help his patients feel no pain. He is successful, but when his demonstration to Dr. John C Warren's class at Massachusetts General Hospital fails, he gives up and despite the fact he has no money becomes an art dealer, even traveling to Paris. Then, we lose track of him Richmond Hoxie is a convincingly pompous Dr. Warren, Head of Surgery and Professor of Anatomy and Surgery at Harvard. These doctors meet under the Dome, which is not fully explained, but the space seems lit only by a skylight, no electricity.
William Morton, on the other hand, gets advice from Dr. Charles T. Jackson, a part depicted earnestly by William Youmans, brother of the set designer. (Is this a first?). Jackson suggests he use pure Ether to dull his wife's pain and fear. When Morton is successful, he tries to patent Ether and charge the doctors a fee. They are, of course, outraged. Meanwhile, there is an odd scene, where a man played well by Lee Sellars, tells Lizzie, Morton's wife, that her husband is a womanizer and a thief, and demands the $5000 he claims he is owed. Liba Vaynberg is touching as this innocent woman, many months pregnant. But what about this story? Was it true? We do not find out.
Ether Dome was produced in its world Premier at the Alley Theatre in Houston in 2011. It goes on to the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston. Between now and then, there should be some heavy editing.
This review originally aired on WMNR 88.1 FINE ARTS PUBLIC RADIO