Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Theater Review: Ether Dome -- Hartford Stage

William Youmans, Richmond Hoxie, Ken Cheeseman, Salvatore Mitsou, Jacob Grannon. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
A Hartford History Lesson with Too Many Details, Not Enough Details
By Lauren Yarger
Think about the last time you had major dental work or an operation. Now imagine having the procedure done without anesthesia and you will have a new appreciation for Hartford dentist Horace Wells, the father of modern anesthesia, who pioneered the use of nitrous oxide (a.k.a. laughing gas) to ease patients’ discomfort during tooth extractions.

A new play telling Wells’ tale is getting its east coast premiere at Hartford Stage, directed by former artistic director Michael Wilson, who during his tenure here, commissioned Elizabeth Egloff to write it.

A co-production with La Jolla Playhouse in California, Huntington Theatre Company in Boston and Houston’s Alley Theatre, the play is full of local references that make us chuckle, but with dozens of actors playing multiple parts for more than two hours and 40 minutes, the plot gets bogged down with too many details and leaves too many holes to live up to its billing as a “psychological thriller.”

The mid-1800s atmosphere is nicely created.  James Youmans’s set (expertly lighted by David Lander) uses projections to quickly take the action from Hartford to Paris or to the “Dome,” a sky-lighted operating theater at the newly formed Massachusetts General Hospital. David Woolard’s costumes and Charles LaPointe’s hair and wig design put the characters there and John Gromada’s original music enhances mood during scene changes. The agony of pre-anesthesia dental procedures also is created as Wells (Michael Bakkensen ) and his assistant, William Morton (Tom Patterson), extract a tooth from patient Mrs. Wadsworth (Johanna Morrison). It’s not pretty.

Wells attends a demonstration by a pharmacist named Colton (Lee Selars) on the effects of laughing gas and wonders whether it might be used to make patients unaware of pain during surgery. He has some success using it with his patients, but when he demonstrates the procedure for Dr. John Warren (Richmond Hoxie) and his esteemed colleagues at the Dome, something goes wrong and he’s laughed out of the room.

A subsequent failure that causes the death of a patient undermines Wells’ confidence. He gives up his practice decides to open an art gallery and escapes to Paris, over the objections of his wife, Elizabeth (Amelia Pedlow), who is concerned about practical things, like paying the bills.

Meanwhile, Morton misappropriates some of Wells’ funds to outwit a rival named Bushnell for the hand of wealthy Lizzie Whitman (Liba Vaynberg). He wins the effervescent girl whose moral character is questioned by Miss Porter, then decides he no longer wants to be a dentist, but wants to be a surgeon. He begs Dr. William Jackson (William Youmans) to mentor him, then steals his idea for using ether as a way to dull pain.

He successfully demonstrates the technique at the Dome, but enrages Warren and his colleagues with the announcement that he has patented the compound and plans to charge for its use.
The local name drops and some digs by the Harvard grads at Hartford bring the most chuckles.
If you’re not from Hartford, the references will be lost and the play’s weaknesses might leave you wanting more. As is often the case with plays that are based on real people who made historical contributions, the playwright struggles with just how much of the story to tell and where it’s OK to veer from reality to shape the story for telling on a stage.

I am of the mind that there only is one Connecticut based play about drug addiction that needs three acts for the telling. It is O’Neill’s masterpiece and Pulitzer-Prize winner A Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Almost anything else -- including Dr. Wells’ decline into depression, drug addiction and dark life that might well have provided the inspiration for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde --  can and should be wrapped up in far less time.

Ether Dome’s first act seemed so long that I was shocked to discover at the first intermission that less than an hour had passed. This was due, I think to Wilson’s ability to keep the action moving. Audience members exiting after the performance commented on how modern attention spans can’t sit through such a long telling.

Too many little details are included and in some scenes I found my mind wandering so much that I wondered whether some of that laughing gas might have escaped to fill the theater. Yet other questions are left hanging, like did any of the paintings that Wells collected find their way to the Wadsworth Atheneum?

Much more interesting to me than the doctors were their wives. How did Elizabeth make ends meet while her husband was under the influence of drugs or off treating emperors in France? Was she really as happy as depicted when he returned? What happened to her after he died? How did Lizzie cope when she discovered that her husband wasn’t what he seemed or that she hadn’t been the first woman to succumb to his charms? Vaynberg manages to capture our hearts with the few scenes she has. I would have liked to see what she could have done with a developed character.

Egloff, who is a Farmington native and graduate of Trinity College and Yale Drama School, doesn’t go there, though and sticks to the testosterone-filled tale of the doctors and their contemporaries. Both Bakkensen and Petterson distinguish themselves with solid performances. Also standing out are Hoxie, Youmans and Bill Kux as Dr. George Hayward, who performs one of the first operations using ether as anesthesia. (Egloff’s other works include The Swan, The Devils -- also directed by Wilson – and she was an Emmy nominee for “The Reagans.”) 

If nothing else, Ether Dome affords a chance to celebrate some local history. More than 500 dentists, anesthesiologists and history enthusiasts hosted multiple events in early September to celebrate Wells’ life. Connecticut Historical Society also has created a series of panels about Wells’ life on display in the theater’s upper lobby.

Take a walk around Hartford and you’ll see a bronze statue of Wells in Bushnell Park; a life-sized portrait at the Wadsworth Atheneum; an elaborate memorial monument at Cedar Hill Cemetery where his tombstone reads “There shall be no pain;” a Tiffany Studios stained-glass memorial window dedicated to him at the First Church of Christ (Center Church) and a pew in his honor at Trinity College Chapel.

You also can put yourself in the scene the next time you enjoy Burger King, on the former site of Wells’ Main Street office.

And if that’s not enough for history buffs, Wilson dedicates the production to the recently deceased Nafe Katter, who acted at Hartford Stage  and directed the acting program at UConn, where a theater bears his name.

Ether Dome plays through Oct. 5. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Matinees Sunday and select Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 pm. Tickets $25-$95  (860) 527-5151;

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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