TIMES OF SAN DIEGO
Three guys walk into an operating room: a drug-addled dentist, a surgeon who faints at the sight of blood, and a hustler who’ll do anything for a buck – and a little fame.
These are the point-men in the development of ether as a surgical anesthetic. It’s a hair-raising story that has fascinated playwright Elizabeth Egloff for some time. But she hasn’t yet found a way to tell it.
“Ether Dome,” making its West coast premiere at La Jolla Playhouse (in collaboration with the Alley Theatre, Hartford Stage and Huntington Theatre Company) is a classic case of a writer doing so much research, and falling so much in love with the many facets and side-stories of her tale, that she can’t let any of it go.
So there’s a soporific, 90-minute first act that’s almost entirely exposition – with entirely too much medical-dental pain and gore depicted. (Trust us; we get it after one screamy example).
Nothing much happens, and then, in the second act, too much happens. There are so many digressions, there’s nowhere for us to focus, since Egloff hasn’t decided on her own focus. She doesn’t seem to have determined whose story this is: the well-meaning dentist, Horace Wells (Michael Bakkensen ), who was the first to suggest the use of laughing gas (nitrous oxide) to manage pain and who, thanks to his direct and disastrous experimentation with various inhalable compounds, turns out to be the prototype for Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Or is it the queasy surgeon, Charles Jackson (William Youmans ), a brilliant thinker/inventor who first conceived of the medical use of sulfuric ether? Or should we devote our attention primarily to the relentless, uneducated confidence man, William Morton (Tom Patterson), who, having been a protégé of both Wells and Jackson, passes himself off as a dentist, then a doctor, and markets the use of ether at Mass. General Hospital, thereby initiating the commercialization of medicine?
They’re all great stories, and Egloff adds in wives and fantasy women and an enigmatic abundance of astronomy and paleontology. Two suicides and one mental breakdown ensue from this fraught chapter of medical history. But who do we follow or root for? What’s the takeaway? Or is this just the didactic history lesson it appears to be in the first act? As one fellow theatergoer quipped, “Till she got to the heart of the story, it was like pulling teeth!”
Egloff needs to go back to the drawing board, ruthlessly excising extraneous details, and deciding if this is a story about medicine, honesty, loyalty, indomitability, the competitive nature of research, or medicine as hubris, altruism, ambition or Big Business. Or something else.
Even the projections were shaky on opening night – literally. The costumes (David C. Woolard ) are period-apt (1846) and the scenic design (James Youmans , also responsible for the projection design) effectively suggests the operating theater at Mass General (still called “the Ether Dome”). The lighting (David Lander) and original music (John Gromada ) contribute nicely.
The cast of 14 is versatile and capable. The most effective scenes are those with highly emotionally charged interactions, as opposed to the more prolix and pedantic explications. We need less telling, in other words, more showing; less history, more drama.
“Ether Dome” runs through August 10, in the Weiss Forum on the campus of UC San Diego
Performances are Tuesday-Wednesday at 7:30pm; Thursday-Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 7pm; Saturday and Sunday at 2pm
Running Time: 2.5 hrs ,
Tickets (starting at $15) are at 858-550-1010 ; www.lajollaplayhouse.org
©2014 PAT LAUNER