Floating Above the Fray: ETHER DOME

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Presented by Huntington Theatre Company
By Elizabeth Egloff
Directed by Michael Wilson

Oct. 17 – Nov. 23rd
South End / Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA
Boston, MA
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Review by Craig Idlebrook

(Boston) The biopic or docudrama is a mainstay of the flatscreen and the silver screen, but it doesn’t get nearly as much play on stage. In theory, it should, as these types of stories appeal to those who want to learn something while they are being entertained, and that would seem to include the well-educated who can afford to go to the theatre on a regular basis. But even Shakespeare’s straight-up docudramas, the Henrys and such, don’t do as much business as Romeo and Juliet or Much Ado About Nothing.

If there were ever a play that was trying to hit a home run with the docudrama, it would be Ether Dome, which follows the tumultuous path of the discovery and adoption of anesthesia by New England doctors. What starts out as a quest to make patients suffer less becomes a race for scientific validity between Hartford dentist Dr. Horace Wells (Michael Bakkensen), who accidentally discovers that laughing gas is more than a novelty drug, and his ambitious former partner, William Morton (Tom Patterson), who favors using a more powerful compound. They must navigate the ego-filled minefield of Mass General Hospital to try their ideas on human guinea pigs. Doctors backstab each other, cut ethical corners, and get themselves addicted to some serious drugs, all while trying to remember their Hippocratic oath and endure the physical suffering they must inflict on others in surgery.

This play is well-paced, the set is imaginative, and the acting energetic, but the production fails in its quest to deliver anything more than the facts. To be sure, it would be a challenge to do so, as playwright Elizabeth Egloff doesn’t seem to want to focus on one character for too long, and she ensures that none of the characters are fundamentally likeable. Unfortunately, director Michael Wilson then seems to sacrifice character development for pacing. The cast is strong, but the motivations for characters in each scene never become clear before we move on to the next muddled bit of action. When Morton turns on Wells, his former teacher, the sting of betrayal is muted because I never understood their relationship in the first place. Morton seems desperate for power and recognition, but we never fully realize why, leaving Patterson just looking sweaty and confused throughout much of the play.

Greater themes are lost in the haze, and we are left with a breezy history book performed on stage. If it were assigned reading in college, I would thank my lucky stars that it was so easy on the eyes, but as a theatergoer I am left confused.

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