‘Ether Dome’: Finally, a way to ‘do no harm’
BOSTON — “First, do no harm” is the translation of a Latin instruction for physicians, often mistakenly connected to the Hippocratic Oath but actually occurring in another ancient text devoted to medicine.
But that was all but impossible for surgeons to follow before the advent of general anesthesia, an era when the surgery would likely kill the patient as often as save him.
Barbaric conditions would often see the patient to go into shock or to begin writhing about while the surgeon operated, often causing a fatal slip of the scalpel.
The Huntington Theatre Company’s “Ether Dome,” now at the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts, is a fascinating, well-constructed, thought-provoking look at the discovery that ether could be used as an anesthetic, how it changed the world — and the lives that were ruined along the way.
The co-production with Alley Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, and Hartford Stage moves with the swiftness of a surgeon’s scalpel in three acts under the direction of Michael Wilson, with most of the action centered on Hartford and Massachusetts General Hospital here in Boston.
Playwright Elizabeth Egloff has injected a whole host of bon mots about Boston, gentle, but funny jabs the egos of the doctors at the MGH, and the failures of Boston drivers — even in the days of the 19th Century horse and buggy.
Dr. Horace Wells (Michael Bakkensen) is a very successful Hartford dentist, with a thriving — if horrifyingly gory — dental practice.
He has a full waiting room despite the pain and suffering his patients undergo at his hands, dramatically portrayed via a wonderful turn by Karen MacDonald as one of Wells’ patients.
He is assisted by wife Elizabeth (Amelia Pedlow) and his former student and present partner William Morton (Tom Patterson), a man lacking in morals if not ambition.
Morton is wooing his future bride and setting out on his own to open a dentistry office in Boston as the piece opens.
Wells attends a seminar demonstrating the use of nitrous oxide — “laughing gas” — in relaxing patients and easing their pain, and when Wells tries it out (on himself) with a successful result, he shows Morton, and Morton is eager to have the possible breakthrough displayed for the surgical community at Mass. General.
And what a community it is, led by Dr. John Collins Warren (Richmond Hoxie), the MGH founder and head of surgery, an imperious, my-way-or-the highway surgeon operating under the hospital’s famed dome; Dr. Charles Jackson (William Youmans), a chemist and former student; Dr. Henry Bigelow (Greg Balla) and Dr. Augustus Gould (Ken Cheeseman).
The Harvard-trained physicians are — according to themselves — the end-all and be-all of medical knowledge, and skeptical of anything that comes from outside their closed society. At a time when surgeons raced the clock to see how fast they could amputate a limb, because that was the only known way to spare patients pain, they were open to any idea that would ease their patients’ suffering.
Morton proposes that Wells demonstrate the use of nitrous oxide to the doctors, but the demonstration goes awry, subjecting Wells to ridicule and callas of “quack.”
But Morton finds out from Jackson — his mentor and a most reluctant surgeon — the qualities of ether — relaxing the patient without killing him — and that sets Morton off on a race to find out both how to deliver an ether compound to the patient without killing him and how to also run a huge profit while doing it.
You almost need a organizational chart trying to keep all the characters straight as the action bounces around Hartford, Boston, Paris, Washington, D.C. and New York City in the course of three acts.
The story of Dr. Wells — and his eventual descent into madness after being denied credit for his own contributions — reputedly inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to create Dr. Henry Jekyll, and Bakkensen’s performance is easily the most skilled and harrowing of the large ensemble cast, although Hoxie is fine as Dr. Warren.
Hoxie shines in the scenes when Morton — after devising a way to successfully deliver the ether compound to the patient — comes into the operating room that fateful day of Oct. 16, 1846 lawyered-up and determined to protect his breakthrough at any costs.
The need to relieve pain runs head-long into to capitalism at its best, creating the most sparks and drama of the evening.
James Youmans’ scenic design and skillfully-displayed projections allow us to follow the actions as its moves quickly in time and space, and John Gromaad’s sound design and original music help build the suspense as the action grows more intense.
“Ether Dome” isn’t perfect, but it is always educational, fascinating and entertaining.
The Huntington Theatre Company production of Elizabeth Egloff’s “Ether Dome,”, a co-production with Alley Theatre, Hartford Stage, and La Jolla Playhouse.. Directed by Michael Wilson. Set and projections, James Youmans. Costumes, David C. Woolard. Lights, David Lander. Sound, John Gromada and Alex Neumann. Original music, Gromada. At the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts through Nov. 23. http://www.huntingtontheatre.org.