Elizabeth Egloff has a compelling tale to tell in “Ether Dome.’’ If only she’d told it in a more streamlined way.
The playwright’s subject is a momentous one: the introduction of surgical anesthesia at Massachusetts General Hospital in the mid-19th century. It was one of those turning points in human history where the before-and-after could not be more stark, as patients were finally delivered from the agony once common in operating rooms that were virtual torture chambers.
But Egloff ties herself in narrative knots in “Ether Dome,’’ directed by Michael Wilson at Huntington Theatre Company. While she intermittently demonstrates a skill for building an atmosphere of suspense, her play is overly talky and frustratingly diffuse, prone to detours just when interest starts to quicken.
Egloff deserves credit for her tough-mindedness. Her portrait of this medical breakthrough delivers an emphatic reminder that being a pioneer is not the same thing as being a saint. However, she’s not able to avoid a major pitfall facing writers intent on dramatizing the past: a tendency toward too much exposition, born of the temptation to flood the stage with the fruits of your research. The dramaturgical seams too often show as Egloff tries to weave multiple story lines together, hopscotching from Hartford to Boston to Paris to New York to Washington (and name-checking legendary figures along the way: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Daniel Webster, Oliver Wendell Holmes).
Consequently, the primary characters of “Ether Dome’’ don’t come fully into focus on the crowded Huntington stage. It doesn’t help that so many of the performances by Wilson’s large cast register as stilted and artificial; the actors tend to strike attitudes and declaim their lines rather than persuade us that we’re watching flesh-and-blood human beings wrestling with monumental issues of science and morality.
The journey begins with Dr. Horace Wells (Michael Bakkensen), a Hartford dentist who discovers that administering “laughing gas’’ (nitrous oxide) to his patients frees them of pain when he extracts their teeth. His efforts are avidly followed by William Morton, his unscrupulous protégé, portrayed by Tom Patterson.
Wells and Morton travel to Boston to give a demonstration before the surgeons at Mass. General, including the hospital’s starchy founder and head of surgery Dr. John Collins Warren (Richmond Hoxie), in hopes they’ll see how laughing gas could be used during operations. (Earlier, in a deft touch by Egloff that underscores how the stiff-necked and reactionary medical establishment was mired in the practices of the past, we see Warren and the other surgeons as they are gathered around the skeleton of a mastodon.) When the demonstration goes catastrophically awry, Wells goes into a major tailspin (a descent powerfully conveyed by Bakkensen late in the play).
Not Morton, however. This is a fellow with his eye on the main chance, and he gets it when Dr. Charles Jackson, a jittery chemist played by William Youmans, gives him a vial of sulphuric ether. Pretty soon Morton has devised a compound that he believes can be used as a general anesthetic. It’s time for another demonstration at Mass. General, this time on a patient with a neck tumor. When Dr. Warren objects to being charged for the compound, a bit of class friction occurs, not for the first time in the play. “Are you Beacon Hill fellows allowed to make money, but not me?’’ Morton demands.
What’s riding on the demonstration in the surgical amphitheater (evocatively designed by James Youmans) are not just Morton’s hopes of becoming rich but mankind’s hopes for an end to the kind of suffering we’d witnessed in an earlier scene, when a young Gloucester fish-cutter has her gangrenous arm amputated.
It’s a chilling episode that illustrates one of the strengths of “Ether Dome,’’ for all the play’s flaws: It reminds us how dependent we are on advances in medical science — and that we can’t be too choosy about the character of those who make the breakthroughs.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.