The Ether Dome takes on the complex subject of medical discovery — to numbing effect.
  • The Ether Dome takes on the complex subject of medical discovery — to numbing effect.
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Ether Dome

The discovery of ether as an anaesthetic is a fascinating story. Not only that, it opens up many related topics. There’s the “battle for credit.” William Morton grabbed the prize but stole the idea from Charles Jackson and Horace Wells. There’s the strange patent rights of the 1840s (know someone and you’re in, without scientific verification). And, of course, life before ether: the only painkillers during surgery being whiskey (which you drank) and a bullet (which you bit).

Not to mention addictions in those days: opium, laudanum, morphine, laughing gas. And the question: why, since people knew about ether for at least 300 years, didn’t doctors use it as an anaesthetic before?

That brings in the attitudes of the 1840s: pre-Darwinian stirrings; medicine (doctors should work gratis?); treatment of women (Morton and Wells called their wives “Little Mouse” and “Little Mother”); academic snobbery (Harvard Med and Massachusetts General vs. the unwashed hinterlands). Add to these the sad fates of Morton, Wells, and Jackson, none of whom went into that good night gently.

Some subjects may be too fruitful for one play. Given Elizabeth Egloff’s scattered Ether Dome at the La Jolla Playhouse, ether as an anaesthetic must be one. The script unfolds like that frantic kid in the candy store, grabbing this chocolate bar, that luscious confection, arm-hauling a shelf of temptations — but so many that they spill and clatter across the floor.

Ether Dome has at least six plays in search of a through-line.

It doesn’t take long to be impressed with Egloff’s research. This isn’t one of those “look how hard I worked” texts, where the author flaunts details like merit badges. It also doesn’t take long to see that she’s attempting way too much. There’s so much exposition, the characters talk like Google hits. They often tell each other what they already know.

The main theme runs deep through history. Just about every patented discovery — from the light bulb to the double helix — has either multiple claimants or someone who got to the patent office too late. Charles Jackson lost at least five: for gun cotton, mining copper, the telegraph (to Samuel Morse), a discovery about digestion, and ether. Some scientists found him suspicious because he made so many prior claims. Others urged him to be more assertive with his discoveries.

In 1846, William Morton said he found the perfect anaesthetic for surgery: Letheon (named after the river of forgetfulness). Though he took the credit, Letheon turned out to be sulfuric ether, which Jackson had recommended. Actually — and here’s how complicated the subject becomes — credit for the first use of ether in surgery now goes to Crawford Long. The Georgian doctor/pharmacist used diethyl ether as an anaesthetic to remove a tumor in 1842 and never published his result.

Michael Wilson, who directs the La Jolla Playhouse production, is obviously aware of the script’s urge to fly off the handle. So, the cast performs in melodramatic mode, bold-facing goods and evils. For breaks from information overload, the director stages the occasional wake-up call. A doctor performs an operation: from pulling teeth to lancing cancerous tumors. David Lander’s lights flash beet-red. John Gromada’s original music agonizes into a ghoulish, claws-on-the-blackboard pitch, like the shower scene in Psycho. These Grand Guignol moments function like an anti-sorbet. They shock the taste buds and prepare spectators for the next entrée of bland exposition.

The physical production solves problems better than the play. James Youmans’s set turns the Mandell Weiss Forum’s steep-raked seating into a surgical amphitheater, à la the actual “Ether Dome” (making the audience med students at Massachusetts General). David C. Woolard’s charcoal-gray costumes catch the starch-collared, Brahmin rectitude of the period, which makes outsider William Morton’s ersatz cravats stand out all the more.

The large cast treats the project with respect, even though revisions are obviously going on as they speak: the stitching still shows. So they must utter new lines, remember to omit rejects, work new blocking, and keep the timing crisp. If there were a “Smoke-Jumper” award for hazardous acting duty, I’d nominate this cast.

To their credit, Michael Bakkensen (Horace Wells), Tom Patterson (William Morton), William Youmans (Charles Jackson), Richmond Hoxie (Dr. Warren), and others, manage to sneak in dimensions where possible. But they must play puppet-like roles at best. The critic Walter Kerr said, “It is better to make a character than to make a point.” Ether Dome’s a case in point.

The subject fascinates. But since it shoots off in myriad directions, the question arises: how to revise it? A hardcore, blue-penciled trim? Sure. A stronger sense of emphases between major and minor characters and important information? A must.

How about using a narrator? Put backstory and historical import in one person’s hands? The single focus would pull the parts together more effectively — and account for them as well. Using a narrator might be an obvious, maybe even a hackneyed, choice. But then again, desperate scripts call for desperate devices.

The Ether Dome, by Elizabeth Egloff

La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla

Directed by Michael Wilson; cast: Richmond Hoxie, William Youmans, Gregory Balla, Ken Cheesman, Bill Kux, Linda Libby, Michael Bakkensen, Amelia, Pedlow, Kevin Hafso-Koppman, Tom Patterson, Lee Sellars, Liba Vaynberg; scenic/projection design, James Youmans; costumes, David C. Woolard; lighting, David Lander; sound, John Gromada, Alex Neumann; fight director, George Ye

Playing through August 10; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010.

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