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In Huntington’s ‘Ether Dome,’ there’s pain in MGH’s gain

Left (from left): Ken Cheeseman, Richmond Hoxie, Tom Patterson, Bill Kux, and Greg Balla in “Ether Dome.” Below: director Michael Wilson and playwright Elizabeth Egloff. Bottom: Patterson and Liba Vaynberg.
Left (from left): Ken Cheeseman, Richmond Hoxie, Tom Patterson, Bill Kux, and Greg Balla in “Ether Dome.” Below: director Michael Wilson and playwright Elizabeth Egloff. Bottom: Patterson and Liba Vaynberg.T. Charles Erickson

The Ether Monument in the Boston Public Garden commemorates a discovery that saved mankind from untold pain. The story behind the 19th-century medical breakthrough isn't nearly as uplifting.

Scams, betrayals, addiction, lives and careers destroyed — it's all there in "Ether Dome," which tells what happened before and after the first demonstration of the anesthetic at Massachusetts General Hospital on Oct. 16, 1846. Elizabeth Egloff's play begins performances Friday at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, in a Huntington Theatre Company co-production.

"It's about the ethics of what happened, the ethics of stealing people's ideas, of risking a patient's life when you don't know what the blank you're doing, and of doing it for the money," says Egloff.

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The play's first scene focuses on a woman screaming. A grand dame played by Boston favorite Karen MacDonald is strapped into a chair by Connecticut dentist Dr. Horace Wells and his student William Morton for a tooth extraction that doesn't go well at all. Her agony stands in for the suffering of everyone who had surgery up to that point in history. It's not the last touch of Grand Guignol here.

Inflicting such pain takes a toll on the doctors, too. Wells, played by Michael Bakkensen, tries nitrous oxide as an anesthetic until a disastrous demonstration for doctors in the surgical amphitheater atop MGH's Bulfinch Building. But soon Morton, played by Tom Patterson, demonstrates a different anesthetic in the same venue. He calls his gas Letheon, after the mythological river of forgetting, but it's really sulfuric ether with oil of orange added to disguise its odor. He successfully anesthetizes a man having a tumor removed from his neck and becomes the toast of the town and the nation. Suddenly many medical treatments are possible without torture.

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In Egloff's view, it was another milestone in an era when mankind began to study consciousness more scientifically, the Industrial Revolution changed the way many people lived, and Marxism took shape. "Once they used ether, suffering became a choice, and that changed everything," the playwright says. "Suffering was no longer what God gives you to prove your worth as a Christian. You could still believe that God gives you suffering, but you now had an out."

The director, Michael Wilson, commissioned the play nearly a decade ago, during his tenure as artistic director of Hartford Stage from 1998-2011. "I was going through [Hartford's] Bushnell Park and came across this statue of a man named Horace Wells, this gorgeous statue with a sweeping cape, and it said, 'Horace Wells, discoverer of anesthesia,' " Wilson says. A newspaper story soon filled him in on the dramatic background.

He had been looking for a commission for Egloff, whom he compares to Tony Kushner "in terms of how she weaves language and history and political ideas and thought together with roiling human emotions and really rich characters."

"Ether Dome" debuted at the Alley Theatre in Houston in 2012. A revised version played La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego and Hartford Stage before the Huntington, with many of the actors playing all three theaters. All four companies are involved in the co-production.

But who had the ether idea first? Wells and Dr. Charles Jackson made claims that were never sorted out, and Morton was exposed for previous frauds. The aftermath ravaged all of their lives. Egloff says some have speculated Wells's deterioration was an inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."

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Director Michael Wilson and playwright Elizabeth Egloff.
Director Michael Wilson and playwright Elizabeth Egloff.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff/Globe staff

Still, even if the ether idea wasn't Morton's, he was the one who acted on it. "It's the brutal fact of invention that several people come up with the idea," says Egloff, "and then it takes that one person who has the nerve to risk everything and do it."

Morton's demonstration was also a turning point because he demanded MGH cofounder Dr. John Collins Warren sign a license to use his formulation. He planned to patent it and profit by having doctors sell pain-free operations to their patients. "The idea of making people pay to not be in agony — it was so shocking to all those doctors," Egloff says. "It's completely breaking your Hippocratic Oath. It's OK to pay your expenses, but you were not supposed to get rich off your patients."

That issue has special resonance for Egloff, who has leukemia. She came to Boston for treatment at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center in 2005-06, including a stem cell transplant. She says that while her leukemia is a chronic disease, after eight years she is still in remission.

"My point of view on the play really changed after I was sick, because one of the big drugs for leukemia is Gleevec, and the history of Gleevec and all these [drugs] that are now a gazillion dollars — it all starts here with Morton signing up Warren and an idea to charge the patients," she says.

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That treatment is hardly her only tie here. Egloff's father is a doctor, a Harvard Medical School graduate and was a senior resident in psychiatry at what she calls "The General" in the 1950s. She made several research trips to Boston sites including the amphitheater, which was renamed "The Ether Dome" after the anesthetic. She first visited the Dome, which was not used as a surgery after 1867, decades ago with her father.

"It hadn't been cleaned up and, you know, anesthetized," she says with a laugh. "It was dusty and gurneys had been just sort of pushed into the corner, and it was really like people had been there yesterday. It was great. Of course now it has lost that flavor, it's a little museum."

Egloff's husband, James Youmans, is the play's set designer; they met when he designed her first production in New York, 1989's "The Swan." Her brother-in-law, actor William Youmans, plays Dr. Jackson.

Egloff has never visited the Ether Monument in the Public Garden. If she does, she will see that its inscription takes a different approach to the tangled tale of Wells, Morton, Warren, Jackson, and the rest. It praises the discovery for its relief of human suffering, but mentions no names at all.

A look at "Ether Dome":


Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.