By Karen Isaacs
Behind every great invention are dozens of people claiming either whole or partial credit. In addition there are the skeptics and those who think only of fame, glory and profit. Ether Dome, the play getting its East Coast premier at Hartford Stage Company through Oct. 5, examines some of these characters behind the discovery of ether as an anesthetic.
While this play premiered in Houston, it was actually commissioned by Hartford Stage in 2005. There are other strong Connecticut connections include the playwright, Elizabeth Egloff and some of the settings and major characters.
Ether Dome tells of the involvement of Hartford dentist Horace Wells in the discovery and use of medical anesthesia. While the idea was not unheard of — historians can point to a long history of experimentation — in 1845 when the play is set dental and surgical procedures were pain-ladened. No wonder bad breath from rotting teeth was prevalent! Patients were held or bound into chairs while the dentist extracted the culprit tooth.
The play opens with Wells seeing a man injure himself after ingesting some nitrous oxide –or laughing gas as it is referred to — but experiencing no pain. That sets his mind to thinking about its use in dentistry. After some success in Hartford with it, he is persuaded by his student William Morton who is now in Boston to give a demonstration at Mass. General Hospital. The doctors and medical students are decidedly skeptical and when the demonstration goes wrong — the patient awakens partway through the procedure, he is laughed back to Hartford.
While Wells is shaken, and even abandons dentistry to become an art dealer, his former student continues to seek the miracle. Another Mass. General surgeon, Dr. Charles T. Jackson gives him some ether and soon Morton is trying to patent it and make his fortune.
This three act play that runs over two and a half hours, shows us all four of the men: Wells who perhaps the most tragic; Morton who has an eye for fame and fortune, Jackson who is brilliant and in the play claims to have invented the telegraph but lost a patent fight to Morse, and Warren, the head surgeon and teacher.
For those with squeamish stomachs, you don’t have to worry. Nothing is graphic and there is almost no blood anywhere on the stage.
In reality, the play revolves around the four men, but my attention was primarily focused on Wells. As played by Michael Bakkensen, you have a man who feels inferior since he is “only” a dentist, yet who is driven to find a way to help his patients. But he is a fragile man, and the debacle at the hospital demonstration sends him spiraling downward. You feel pity for him when he writes Morton begging for some recognition of the role he played. Bakkensen’s performance is nuanced and deepens over time. I certainly was rooting for him to succeed.
Morton, played by Tom Patterson, is the closest thing to a villain in the piece. His background seems shady and his interest is less in scientific knowledge than in making money. Patterson plays the role subtlety so it takes a while for you to figure out his true character. But while he is the conniver, even he is broken in the end by “the establishment.”
The two Brahmins of Mass General are opposites of each other. Dr. Warren, played by Richmond Hoxie, was both a Harvard professor of surgery and a founder of Mass. General. Hoxie gives us the confident man accustomed to deference. The scene where Morton tries to extract a patent royalty from Warren shows us just how much the doctor expected the world to bow to his wishes.
But my second favorite character — and the one I would like to learn more about — is Dr. Charles Jackson, a chemist, former medical student and genius. As played by William Youman, you see the restless and at times tortured mind of this man who failed as a medical student — he fainted every time he attempted surgery. But you also see his questing for answers whether in the sky with a telescope or in medicine.
Only two women have substantial roles: Amelia Pedlow as Elizabeth Wells and Liba Vaynberg as Morton’s wife “Lizzie.” Each is fine in her own right. Pedlow’s wife is the more supportive while Vaynberg’s “Lizzie” reflects some character traits similar to her husband.
Michael Wilson, former artistic director at Hartford Stage, not only originally commissioned this work, but is directing it as well. He displays a sure hand with the multiple settings, characters and situations. He keeps the pace moving.
Special credit needs to be given to scenic designer James Youmans who creates a semi-circular backdrop that can be easily adjusted to the various locations. David C. Woolard gives us authentic period costumes, while light designer David Lander and sound designers John Gromada and Alex Neuman add to both the mood and the meaning of the piece.
Ether Dome is not a finished play. It seems to need a scissors at times; while I found the conversation about astronomy between Morton and Jackson fascinating, it is unclear how it really relates to the plot except to find an excuse for Jackson to give Morton the ether. There are other scenes that could be trimmed our eliminated without damage to the work.
Ether Dome is at the Hartford Stage Company, 50 Church St, Hartford, through Oct. 5. For tickets and information, call the box office at 860-527-5151 or visit www.HartfordStage.org.
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