Thursday, November 13, 2014

"Ether Dome" by Elizabeth Egloff Presented by The Huntington Theatre Company

My take on the current Huntington Theatre Company production of "Ether Dome" at the Calderwood Pavillion at the BCA is a "Good News - Bad News story."  The good news is that the saga of how ether came to be used to eliminate horrific pain from surgical procedures is rife with drama, intrigue and colorful characters whose stories should be the stuff of gripping theater.  The bad news is that in its present form, this play written by Elizabeth Egloff and directed by Michael Wilson does not feel like a finished work, despite the fact that it has been performed by co-producing theaters Alley Theatre, Hartford Stage and La Jolla Playhouse.  Many of the scenes come across as static dioramas in a medical museum rather than dynamic vignettes in a living work of art.

Ken Cheeseman as Dr. Gould
Richmond Hoxie as Dr. Warren
Tom Patterson as William Morton
Bill Kux as Dr. Hayward
Greg Balla as Dr. Bigelow
Elizabeth Egloff's Ether Dome

directed by Michael Wilson
Playing through Nov. 23, 2014
at the South End / Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA.
Photo: T. Charles Erickson

There are many praiseworthy aspects to this production.  Many years ago, I worked at MGH, home to the legendary "Ether Dome" in the Bullfinch Building designed by the same architect who graced us with the gold dome atop the Massachusetts State House.  I certainly knew something of the back story of what an important part ether had played in the history of MGH.  Back when MGH had hosted its own nursing school, the RN's nurse's caps were recognizable anywhere in the medical cosmos, for they were shaped as replicas of the original ether masks. Yet, I learned a great deal of the back story in watching "Ether Dome" unfold.  I wish that there had been some considered amputation of a few portions of exposition and text, for asking an audience to sit for three hours for the telling of this story felt a bit like enduring a long dental procedure without - well, without anesthesia!

The fine ensemble cast, listed below, soldiered on with the material, with action taking place in Hartford, Boston, Paris, New York City and Washington, D.C. The cast were helped enormously by the very effective set and projection designs of James Youmans, period costumes by David C. Woolard, lighting by David Lander and sound by John Gromada and Alex Neumann.

Standing out among the cast for particular mention are:

  • Michael Bakkensen, a Hartford dentist who is betrayed by his former student and loses his way after becoming a laughing stock following a failed demonstration at MGH.
  • Tom Patterson as the conniving William  Morton who takes Dr. Wells' germinal idea for using gas for anesthesia and tries to strike it rich by commercializing his version of ether sulfate.
  • Amelia Pedlow as Dr. Wells' long suffering wife, Elizabeth.
  • Liba Vaynberg as Morton's wife "Lizzie"
  • Richard Hoxie as Dr. Warren (a building at MGH is named for him)
  • Greg Balla as Dr. Bigelow (a building at MGH is named for him)
  • William Youmans as Dr. Jackson (a building at MGH is named for him)
  • Ken Cheeseman as Dr. Gould

The ensemble cast of sixteen includes:

  • Michael Bakkensen (Noises Off) as Horace Wells
  • Greg Balla (By the Way, Meet Vera Stark at The Lyric Stage Company) as Dr. Bigelow
  • Ken Cheeseman (Prelude to a Kiss at the Huntington) as Dr. Gould
  • Richmond Hoxie (I’m Not Rappaport on Broadway) as Dr. Warren
  • Bill Kux (The Best Man on Broadway) as Dr. Hayward
  • Karen MacDonald (Good People at the Huntington)as Mrs. Wadsworth
  • Tom Patterson (Streamers at 440 Studios in New York) as William Morton
  • Amelia Pedlow (The Heir Apparent at Classic Stage Company) as Elizabeth Wells
  • Lee Sellars (A Time to Kill on Broadway) as Dr. Colton
  • Liba Vaynberg (The Golem of Havana at La MaMa) as Lizzie Morton
  • William Youmans (The Farnsworth Invention on Broadway) as Dr. Jackson
  • as well as Matthew Barrett, Veronica Barron, Nile Hawver, Nash Hightower, Malcolm Young

The play will run through November 23 at the Calderwood Pavillion at the BCA.

Huntington Theatre Website

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