If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

East Coast Premiere for Hartford Stage Opener

Somewhere amidst the rambling mess of a play called “Ether Dome”, currently making its east coast premiere as the opening production of Hartford Stage’s new season, there may very well be a “psychological thriller” hiding within. That, at least, is how it’s been described in press notices. With this current rendering, however, Elizabeth Egloff’s ambitious historical drama produces little psychology and even fewer thrills.

Set in 1846, “Ether Dome” concerns the discovery of anesthesia by Hartford dentist Horace Wells. Egloff’s play begins with a gripping scene of cringe-worthy torture as a female patient is in the process of having her teeth removed by Wells and his eager assistant, William Morton. What follows is a power play of sorts between Wells and Morton and, later, Massachusetts General Hospital surgeons Charles T. Jackson and John C. Warren, over who is to get credit for the discovery of a drug that had world-wide consequences in the alleviation of pain. “Ether Dome” flirts with many themes including medical ethics, patient rights, religion vs. science, student/teacher dynamics and the genesis of healthcare. It is comprised of three acts, two intermissions, a cast of fifteen and a running time of almost three hours. All told, “Ether Dome” bites off significantly more than it can chew.

The playwright’s ambitions probably would be better served on film where the play’s several scenes and numerous locales (Hartford, Boston and Paris among others) would be given more space to breathe. On stage the scenes tend to begin promisingly but never gain momentum and then sputter and fall flat before yet another scene begins. It doesn’t help that Egloff doesn’t seem to know which of her four leading characters to follow, so she ends up following them all giving the drama a confused focus. The acting is also questionable. As Wells, Michael Bakkensen gives a jittery, fussy performance that rarely seems grounded in reality. Tom Patterson fares better as his enthusiastic student until some overwrought moments near the play’s end. Both Richmond Hoxie as Warren and William Youmans as Jackson bring notable gravitas to their roles even as the play beneath them spins out of control.

Director Michael Wilson’s return to Hartford Stage with this particular project is not under the best circumstances, but his customary polish is in evidence along with a crack design team. John Gromada’s effective original music and sound design, promises far more tension and suspense than the script, unfortunately, can ever deliver. David Lander’s lighting seems somewhat shadowy but the period costuming by David C. Woolard and James Youmans’ scenic and projection design are both excellent. A co-production with the Alley Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse and Huntington Theatre Company, “Ether Dome” is, ultimately, a play that perhaps only a dentist could love.
“Ether Dome” continues at Hartford Stage through October 5, 2014. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 860.527.5151 or visit: www.hartfordstage.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

Posted 9.24.2014

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