Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Lost under the Ether Dome

James Youmans' striking set for Ether Dome. Photos: T. Charles Erickson

I suppose playwright Elizabeth Egloff makes no big mistakes in Ether Dome, her sprawling account of the discovery of anesthesia (which wraps its run at the Huntington's Calderwood Pavilion this weekend).

But she makes no big decisions either - and this, coupled with many missteps in terms of focus and form, leads the playwright to wander back and forth over the historical record without ever gaining any dramatic traction on her topic. The resulting assemblage of scenes does boast some effective moments - Egloff has a healthy skepticism toward the "great men" crowding the halls of our own Mass. General (where ether was first systematically introduced), and so often floats an amusingly mordant tone; and she briefly entertains larger political ideas and philosophical perspectives - indeed, you can sometimes sense the author musing on the various episodes of her own play even as it proceeds. Which made me wonder whether the whole thing might work as a miniseries, where diffuseness counts for less. Because as a "play," alas, Ether Dome barely exists.

Although to be fair, wrestling the messy story of the invention of modern surgery into theatrical shape would be a challenge for any dramatist.  There are three, and maybe four, key players in the story - the idealistic dentist, Horace Wells (Michael Bakkensen) who first glimpsed the possibilities of nitrous oxide as a painkiller; his unscrupulous assistant, William Morton (Tom Patterson), who had his eye forever on the main chance; the arrogant John Collins Warren (Richmond Hoxie), the head of surgery at Mass. General, who was confidently blind to the transformative discovery staring him in the face; and the visionary Charles Jackson (William Youmans), who dreamt of many more inventions than he ever managed to actually invent.

Arrogance and avarice meet over the operating table.
But wait, there's more - much more, actually, some of it in Hartford, some of it in Boston, and some of it even in Paris! Thus as the plot not so much thickens as fissures, we long for some vivid core of this strange, eventful history to come to the fore, while the rest fades into the background; but Egloff lacks the technical skill to sculpt so complex a narrative into coherence - instead she reprises her horror-of-surgery gambit, takes repeated detours into dramatic dead ends, and often "cuts away" from a conflict just as it's coming to a head.

But the bottom line is that she simply never decides on any particular focus. Which means she is left with no real theme, either. At the close of the play, after several lives have been wrecked by the intrigues that played out under the Ether Dome, head surgeon Warren scratches his head over the whole debacle and wonders how it ever came to pass.  

And we feel much the same way.

What's most frustrating about this particular misfire, however, is that the Huntington has done its physical production up right, with a grand, striking set and imaginative projections by James Youmans (at top) - and has also fielded an accomplished cast that not only convincingly breathes the air of the nineteenth century, but seems up to the challenges of playwrights like Ibsen or Shaw (Hoxie and Youmans are the stand-outs, but there's solid work across the board).

Of course current political considerations prevent us from programming too much work by Dead White Men like Shaw and Ibsen - who also, it's probably worth noting, hardly need the ministrations of the development department. Although we also note that Ms. Egloff has been working on Ether Dome since 2005; that's nine years, people. Some have counseled that the play simply needs more surgery (with or without anesthesia, I suppose); and certainly several sequences - such as the sojourn in France - all but cry out for amputation. But I'm afraid I feel differently. Cruel as it may sound, if a play is still on life support after nine years, I think it's time to pull the plug.

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