Egloff’s “ETHER DOME” at Hartford Stage through October 5

By Tom Nissley

There’s an important historical play at Hartford Stage this month, celebrating the strange life of Horace Wells, a prominent dentist from the Hartford of the mid-nineteenth century. Dr. Wells is credited with the discovery that laughing gas would so calm a patient’s anxiety that he or she would feel no pain when a tooth was extracted or surgery was performed.

Wells didn’t really capitalize on his discovery, but a creative and energetic entrepreneur named William Morton did. With some ingenuity he created a way to administer ether to patients and applied for a patent on the process. In the meantime two important surgeons from Massachusetts General, in Boston, also reached for a share of the credit.

The play, by Elizabeth Egloff, attempts to put in perspective the very complicated story of how the discovery of the use of Ether became an entwined political happening that ended in disaster for all of the participants. It really is a must-see production, beautifully staged, well directed, and acted with vigor by a skilled team. That it may leave you a little confused and looking toward loose ends doesn’t at all mean that you can ignore it.

The nineteenth century was a heady time of change for the medical profession. In Europe, surgeons were resisting the idea that washing their hands could help to stop young mothers’ deaths during child-birth. Disease was thought to be transmitted by airborne germs, and surely not by human contact. In America there was deep controversy over the ideas of Darwin: that species could change by virtue of a gene being added to a next generation. The same doctors who controlled the medical profession in Boston were troubled by their beliefs being challenged by scientific data, and they also took stands against what anyone might have considered progress in medical practice – a way to keep pain from overwhelming patients.

All of this ferment surfaces in Egloff’s play, which was commissioned several years ago while Michael Wilson was Artistic Director at Hartford Stage. It’s splendid that he returned to direct the production, which is shared with the Alley Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, and Huntington Theatre Company (in Boston).

The set (James Youmans) is beautifully designed, using projected scenes to change from one city to another. Period costumes (David Woolard) make the story line realistic and special lighting (David Lander) and music and sound (John Gromada) are very effective. But what makes the play work is the exchange by key actors of their hopes, and dreams, ambition, and despair. Michael Bakkensen (Horace Wells) and Richmond Hoxie (Dr. John Collins Warren) bring brilliant egos to their roles. Greg Balla (Henry Bigelow), Amelia Pedlow (Mrs. Wells), Liba Vanberg (Mrs. Morton), and Ken Cheeseman (Augustus Gould) and Bill Kux (Dr. George Hayward) are precise and fine in their roles. William Youmans deserves special mention for his portrayal of Dr. Charles Jackson, and Tom Patterson will be nominated by me for best actor for his splendid portrayal of the slippery but quite exciting William Morton.

The open brawling over the surgical table by great men reverting to ambitious young boys was a delight to watch, and the significance of the stories shared in “Ether Dome” are fascinating. There’s a lot going on, and you’ll wish it could be resolved more easily.

But do be sure to enjoy it. Tickets and information at www.hartfordstage.org.

Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre.
September 20, 2014

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