You won’t require anesthesia to get through “Ether Dome,” Elizabeth Egloff’s relatively new play built on the introduction of ether — right here at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1846 — to alleviate the horrific pain of surgery. But neither will you be held to the edge of your lecture-hall seat (we the audience are medical-student observers in the dome). The three-act play is so diffuse, with at least four questionable protagonists, that there is really no one to root for — except, of course, the ether, which both transformed Hippocratic barbarism into a pretty smooth ride and started the medical ball rolling in the direction of big business.
Egloff has been working on “Ether Dome” since 2005, when it was commissioned by then Hartford Stage honcho Michael Wilson, who remains the play’s estimable director. And she would seem to have become so immersed in its twisted tale of medical advancement, cutthroat competition, and personal betrayal that she cannot resist exploring every eddy. But to a fresh observer of the work, in this handsome co-production by the Huntington Theatre Company (last stop on the line), Alley Theatre (where the play premiered in 2011), Hartford Stage, and La Jolla Playhouse, it seems clear that the dramatist needs to administer some pain balm to herself, pick up scalpel and saw, and hack a few limbs off baby.
Though the setting is modeled on MGH’s 19th-century surgical aerie (set high above the street so passersby would not be bothered by the screaming), the play, under Wilson’s swift and sometimes carny direction, chugs from New England to Paris to New York to Washington D.C. with projections racing like toy trains around the edge of the dome to let us know where we’re headed. But the journey begins in Hartford, where dentist Horace Wells and his assistant, William Morton, are extracting a tooth from an upper-crust lady of the town. The patient is turned upstage in a parlor chair, the dentist straddling her Mary Todd Lincoln-esque lap and yanking to the tune of her moans. After the woman’s ankles have been untied and revival efforts undertaken, she is dismissed clutching a bloody handkerchief like Pyramus. Dr. Wells, we learn from the admiring Morton, is “the fastest dentist in Hartford,” quickness being, in this age before anesthesia or finesse, the one comfort a medical man could offer. Well, that and sanctimony since, if God didn’t mean us to suffer, we wouldn’t.
But the Deity is not the only one selling snake oil here. Early on Dr. Wells attends a “lecture” on the expandability of the human cranium, which begins with some laughable assertions about brain biology but culminates in collecting dimes from patrons who’d like to sniff a little nitrous oxide. Wells volunteers and in the thrall of the laughing gas grows tipsy enough to stumble and break his nose, whereupon he realizes he hasn’t felt a thing and can’t wait to get home and have Morton pull one of his teeth as an experiment.
Although Wells has just entered into a partnership with his student, who is set to open a Boston branch of their practice, it is immediately clear that Wells is the compassionate one, Morton the hustling huckster out to make money — an anathema not only to his mentor but to the Harvard-educated stuffed shirts Morton encounters at Mass. General (a group we meet at the home of the hospital’s august founder, Dr. John Collins Warren, where the off-duty docs are assembling the fossil of a mastodon — a rather blatant metaphor for themselves). Unfortunately, when Wells is brought into the dome to demonstrate his use of laughing gas, the hurried anesthetization is a failure by which he is so humiliated that he becomes an art dealer. Hence the trip to Paris.
But when Morton coaxes the idea of using ether from his subsequent mentor, chemist and reluctant surgeon Charles Jackson, the junior partner takes it and runs with it, successfully if recklessly anesthetizing a patient and becoming an overnight hero. “At least now we have ether,” comments Warren toward the end of Egloff’s devolutionary saga. But once the opportunistic Morton patents his “invention,” medical breakthrough gives way to a catfight over who deserves credit, with broken men roaming the stage and one committing something monstrous — very possibly the inspiration for a certain novel by Robert Louis Stevenson.
It’s a heck of a story, as rife here with Grand Guignol as with ethical debate. (I particularly enjoyed the demo in which Warren announced he would skip the maggots and move straight to amputation.) But in Egloff’s elongated telling, it’s more a dental/surgical pageant than a drama, many of its characters more sketched in than developed. And especially in the third act, what befalls whom remains murky unless you already know the facts. Nonetheless, Wilson, abetted by James Youmans’ simple yet swirling scenic and projection design, keeps the train moving. And David C. Woolard’s costumes, particularly for the increasingly dandified Morton, are both hemmed-in and rich: By the time Morton shows up in the OR to demonstrate his new “compound,” you’d think his outfit alone — green suit, purple cravat — would keep the patient awake.
Among the capable actors, Tom Patterson makes an aptly callow if audacious Morton, Liba Vaynberg a likely partner as his cheerily amoral wife. Michael Bakkensen is a likable if increasingly lost and scary Wells and William Youmans a dreamy if arrogant and persnickety Jackson. Richmond Hoxie brings a near-Shavian gravitas to Warren, who ultimately embraces the gift of gas, if not the bearer. Still, like that mastodon the MGH docs are gluing together, “Ether Dome” has the aura of a museum about it. Perhaps it’s less a drama than a historical landmark — like its namesake atop MGH’s Bullfinch Building, where you can still stand on the site of the great mercy that was possibly also a crime.