The patient has been under for a while, quietly resting and gathering strength, and is ready to wake up.
"Ether Dome," a new grand-scale drama about Horace Wells, the Hartford-based dentist who pioneered the use of anesthesia in the mid-19th century, is reviving all at once and stretching its limbs in all directions.
Elizabeth Egloff received a commission to write the play in 2005 from Michael Wilson, who was then artistic director of Hartford Stage. By the time the script was ready to be produced, Wilson had decided to leave Hartford for a freelance career directing in New York and elsewhere. Yet rather than be the casualty of the changing regimes at Hartford Stage, "Ether Dome" expanded like the nebulous gas of its title. While Egloff's script grew in size and scope, other regional theaters became interested in the play. "Ether Dome"'s world premiere production now involves theaters in four cities. In Hartford, where much of the drama's action is set, "Ether Dome" was chosen as the opening show of Hartford Stage's 2014-15 season, with current Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak welcoming his predecessor back to town.
In an age where new plays must have casts of four actors or less if they want to stand a change of getting produced, "Ether Dome'' is a massive production. It boasts a cast of 16. Its themes range from medical history to the manners and morals of 19th century America to timeless universal relationships between teachers and students, doctors and patients, professional colleagues and business partners, and husbands and wives.
Egloff grew up in several of the worlds she chronicles in the play. She was raised in Farmington, down the street from Miss Porter's School, which the wife of one of "Ether Dome'''s class-conscious central characters attended. Egloff's father, a psychiatrist, did a residency at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where the real-life Ether Dome — an operating theater where the use of anesthetic gas was first successfully demonstrated in 1846 — still exists as a historical landmark.
Egloff has brought a lot of detail about class, society and the fervor for scientific innovation in 19th century New England to "Ether Dome.'' But she credits Wilson with initially bringing her the concept of a play about the Connecticut man who discovered new ways to relieve pain during surgery.
"It was Michael's idea," Egloff acknowledged during a telephone interview last week. "He had grant money to commission plays about Connecticut, but he also wanted to just do it anyway. Walking through Bushnell Park one day, he noticed the statue of Horace Wells and just got curious."
Egloff's no stranger to expansive, multi-layered narratives. She wrote the presidential TV miniseries "The Reagans,'' which starred James Brolin and Judy Davis as Ron and Nancy and gained controversy for how it depicted President Reagan's response to the AIDS pandemic. Egloff also adapted the Dostoevsky novel "The Devils'' for a cast of 14. She says she's just been commissioned to do "another enormous play, about the division of Iraq in 1921. I had kind of been looking forward to doing a small comedy…," she jokes.
For "Ether Dome,'' Egloff did extensive research on Horace Wells and his struggle to be recognized for his achievements, a tragic story which the playwright calls "a real page-turner" marked by professional humiliations, savage courtroom battles and falls from grace. Much of the credit for Wells' groundbreaking achievements went to a business-minded scoundrel named William Morton, who trumpeted anesthesia as his own creation and charged doctors for access to his patented product. "This was the first major legal battle between the so-called inventor of a medicine and the doctors who would be using it," Egloff says. Beyond the legal drama, the very idea of using chemicals to alter people's consciousness added to an already furious moral debate regarding mortality, reality, and whether doctors were acting like gods. The Horace Wells story reportedly inspired one of the all-time classics of horror fiction, Robert Louis Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.''
Egloff's empathy for the subject matter was sadly compounded when, shortly after being commissioned to write the play, she was diagnosed with leukemia. She ultimately underwent a stem cell transplant. While she naturally was given the opportunity to bow out of the project, Egloff instead got back to it with renewed vigor and a fresh perspective, writing as a way to help her recuperation. "There had always been a lot of doctors in my family anyway. I already had this sense of how doctors talk to to each other," Egloff relates. "But spending a lot of time in a ward in Boston made me love them even more. The thing about doctors is that they live with such high consequences for their actions. People can die. Having been sick really changed my thinking about the play. In some strange way I ended up having sympathy for everyone in this play. It's so interesting, the nature of progress — the toll it takes on our ideals."
"Ether Dome'' has restirred passions in Michael Wilson as well. The play doesn't just bring the director back to Hartford Stage, the theater he oversaw from 1998 to 2011. The project also reconnects him to the Alley Theater in Houston, where he was associate director from 1990-98, and where he first developed what is one of his lasting Hartford Stage legacies — his spooky, high-flying adaptation of "A Christmas Carol''). It also resumes Wilson's regional-theater relationship with Boston, where he directed the 2012 American premiere of Christopher Shinn's "Now or Later'' at the Huntington Theatre (which will host "Ether Dome'' Oct. 17-Nov. 23) and where he spent his formative years as a director at the American Repertory Theatre under Robert Brustein in the late 1980s. "L.A. is the new thing for me," Wilson remarks during a recent phone call from that city. Though "Ether Dome"'s run at the LaJolla Playhouse closed on Aug. 10, he's still in California, readying the West Coast rendition of his hit African-American-cast revival of Horton Foote's "The Trip to Bountiful,'' starring Cicely Tyson, Vanessa Williams and Blair Underwood at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theater.
It's an exceptionally busy time for Wilson —"It's been a great summer; I'm breathless," he quips—but he relishes the chance to bring the long-gestating "Ether Dome'' to fruition, and to work with Egloff, a writer whose work the director says he's "admired forever."
"When Elizabeth's illness came along, my hope was that this project might give her something to look forward to," Wilson says. For himself, there's a bracing mix of nostalgia, being back in various old stomping grounds, and what the director calls "the progressive, liberalizing undercurrent of this play."
"It was weird being in Houston, working on a play about Hartford, where I'd been for 13 years. It's one of those important local stories that is lost, not celebrated. The single biggest medical innovation in the United States happened right here. Horace Wells' dental office was right there on Main Street, above where a Burger King is now. He was a positive, constructive force in the Hartford community. Then his life just unraveled." Wilson sees Ether Dome as "a cautionary tale," as well as "a love story, about the friendship between two men. It asks, 'what are our responsibilities in the teacher/mentor relationship?'"
The Alley Theater got to present "Ether Dome" first, back in 2011. Substantial changes were made in the script before it was done last month in LaJolla, and further alterations are being incorporated into the Hartford rendition. "The cast in LaJolla was taking in a lot of rewrites while they were rehearsing," Egloff says, and since the multi-theater scale of the production required the producers to shorten the rehearsal periods at each theater, many of those rewrites haven't been incorporated until now. The cast varies slightly at each theater, with some of the supporting roles cast with local actors. The only lead actor who has been with the play since its Alley production three years ago is the man playing Horace Wells, Michael Bakkensen, known to Hartford Stage audiences for his appearances in "Noises Off'' and "A Christmas Carol.''
The "Ether Dome" set design, by James Youmans (who is married to Elizabeth Egloff — the couple has previously collaborated on Off-Broadway productions of The Swan and Phaedra) needs to be adapted for the specific needs of each theater. Hartford Stage has a thrust stage, for instance, while Boston's Huntington is a proscenium.
Though Wilson may not have expected "Ether Dome'' to be as grand a work as it became, he embraced it wholeheartedly and argues for it in terms similar to those he used when he produced Horton Foote's massive nine-part, three-night "Orphan's Home Cycle'' at Hartford Stage in 2009. "Staging this," he says of "Ether Dome'', "well, it's no small feat. There's a cast of 16. The story takes place in Hartford, Boston, New York and Paris. There are period clothes and projections. It's got a real scale to it."
Yet, as Wilson exclaims with pride, "Not-for-profit theaters exist to make projects like this possible. Was I surprised at what she came up with? I was! I actually thought it would be a smaller play. But I should have known that, in Elizabeth's hands, it would be more of an American epic."
Put that in your breathing tube and inhale it.
>>ETHER DOME by Elizabeth Egloff plays Sept. 11 through Oct. 5 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Tickets are $25 to $85; 860-527-5151 and www.hartfordstage.org.