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Playhouses “Ether Dome” fails to deliver.

Tom Peterson with Tom Peterson with cast members in L.J Playhouses  west coast premiere of Ether Dome.
Kevin Berne

Ether Dome


La Jolla, CA---I know. I needed anesthesia just recently when I got my new knee. For that bit of relief I am eternally grateful to all the masculine souls who, over the years, (as told in “Ether Dome”) put together the right formula to make my surgery tolerable.

I am also eternally grateful for whatever was in that cold injection that went into my spine when I had my three children. Didn’t feel a thing! No pain, no gain, no shame.

In Elizabeth Egloff’s “Ether Dome” now the La Jolla Playhouse in a co-production with Alley Theatre, Hartford Stage and Huntington Theatre, through Aug. 10th, there is no ether to stop the hemorrhaging (literally and figuratively) from the pain and tediousness of sitting through her long and rambling story. It isn't pretty.

Just across the courtyard in the Mandell Weiss Theatre, “The Orphan Of Zhao” is in a fascinating production. Dozens of characters die either from their own hand or by brutal force and not one drop of blood is shown being shed. In “Ether Dome” tumors are removed, teeth are pulled and limbs are severed…with blood letting, dripping, drooling and otherwise very much in the forefront. (Too much for this reviewer.)

Egloff’s story of the discovery of ether could and should be fascinating in and of itself as she intertwines the lives of three central characters that actually had a part in its discovery. But it turns out to be the three characters and their stories are filled with a lot of busy and unnecessary ‘stuff’ sprinkled with facts that makes sifting through them arduous and after a while, not worth the effort.

The story begins in a dentist’s office in Hartford, Conn. in the mid 1800’s where a young dentist Dr. Horace Wells (Michael Bakkensen) and his partner and former student William Morton (Tom Patterson) are extracting a tooth from one of their patients, Mrs. Wadsworth (Linda Libby), who had to bite down on a rag to stifle her screams.

Later on Wells was lured to a ‘Grand Exhibition of the Effects Produced by inhaling Nitrous Oxide, Exhilarating on LAUGHING GAS. As a volunteer he didn’t do very well but later started to experiment with the properties and in 1846 removed a tooth, without pain using ether. He never documented the results.

Morton, who never finished dental school, but was flim-flam enough to sell himself, and go behind his partners back, takes credit for the discovery of ether. Wells would spend the rest of his life playing catch-up with his once partner Morton, now turned con man for the discovery that he, Wells thought that he had in fact invented for painless dentistry.

The story moves back and forth between Boston’s Mass. General Hospital where the Ether Dome is actually located and later named and where the use of ether was first introduced to a panel of Harvard doctors and their students who were witness to the first public use of inhaled ether (or laughing gas) as an anesthesia as demonstrated by Wells.

Unfortunately for him the demonstration did not go well and the audience practically threw him out of the Dome. While he continued the use of it on his own patients in Hartford, he never wrote any more about it and was never credited for his discovery.

Later on somewhere between Mass., Hartford and Paris Wells becomes depressed, starts acting out of character, becomes violent, is thrown in prison and begins using ether and chloroform for his depression. At 33 he committed suicide. There are other gory facts, but why go there?

That’s just his story; times that by three or more stories of all involved in the discovery, find and improvement of this gas called ether and you have mishmash of soapbox melodrama between Morton, Charles Jackson (William Youman’s) and Wells.

And there are others: there is Dr. Charles Thomas Warren (Richmond Hoxie) who claimed to have discovered the telegraph and anesthesia. Then there is Dr. Henry Bigelow who wrote an article detailing the discovery of ether anesthesia. All are mentioned and none is well defined. They crisscross and intersect with each other before shows end making it way too long, incoherent and most importantly, lacking in focus.

On the plus side of this long and convoluted story directed by Michael Wilson in the Mandell Weiss Forum through Aug. 10th are James Youman’s neat looking sets with a huge dome suspended over the entire ceiling surrounded by floor to ceiling panels and doors that allow Youman’s projections to take us to other locations. David C.Woolard’s costumes are right out of the fitting rooms of the 1800’s Harvard surgical rooms and David Lander’s lighting design is just fine.

“Ether Dome” boasts more than a dozen characters and they are all up to the task. One, our own Linda Libby is making her La Jolla Playhouse debut as the stalwart and wealthy patient Mrs. Wadsworth. For someone whose mouth is stuffed with cloth to stop the bleeding from her extracted tooth, and she still manages to make herself understood, she deserves a shout out!

If the discovery of ether is something you always had a burning desire to know about, there are volumes of writings, books and journals. Have at it.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Aug. 10th

Organization: La Jolla Playhouse

Phone: 858-550-1010

Production Type: Drama

Where: 2910 La Jolla Village Drive

Ticket Prices: Start @ $15.00


Venue: Mandell Weiss Forum

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