‘Ether Dome’ taps medicine, science, religion and human suffering at La Jolla Playhouse

By Diana Saenger

Director Michael Wilson, who is staging “Ether Dome” at the La Jolla Playhouse, is enjoying the fruits of his labor and relishing his collaboration with playwright Elizabeth Egloff and the Playhouse’s creative team. In addition, on the day of this interview, his TV movie “A Trip to Bountiful,” was nominated for an Emmy award.

“My music teacher from sixth grade was watching the announcements and called to congratulate me,” Wilson said. “That was very sweet. The buzz about the nominations will add more buzz to the play’s run at the Ahmanson Theatre after the Emmy awards.”

“Ether Dome” is a look back at the idea of an inhaled form of anesthesia — nitrous oxide or ether — as a way of relieving pain during surgery.

Wilson said when he was the artistic director of the Hartford Stage he went looking for something for playwright Egloff to create and came upon a statue of Horace Wells in a park.

“In Hartford, Wells is perceived as the discoverer of ether,” Wilson said. ”But in Boston, it’s a different story. That’s where they have ‘Ether Day’ every year at a hospital to honor William Morton, who also claimed to invent ether. I started thinking, these two stories don’t line up. In my research, I found that Horace’s life inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” so I thought, there’s a play here!”

Wilson learned that Egloff was from Farmington, Connecticut outside of Hartford; her father was a doctor who went to Harvard Medical School, which factors heavily into the play; and she was nominated for an Emmy for her work on the script of “The Reagans” for Showtime. He commissioned Egloff to pen “Ether Dome.”

“It’s amazing to work on a play that is set in this time of 1846 and explores the moment in our history when they were doing amputations, tumor removals and vasectomies without any kind of anesthesia!” Wilson said. “It’s hard to grasp how people could endure the pain, and of course the answer to that is they often couldn’t. Sometimes people would die of shock on the operating table.”

“Ether Dome” has many layers that touch on far more than treatment to eradicate pain, and how a doctor and his student play out an epic battle between altruism and ambition.

“The play has a parallel expiration of substance abuse as we particularly see in Horace’s case, and the explorations of these gases lead him to find them exhilarating and ecstatic, not unlike recreational drugs today,” Wilson said. “That became a way for him to alleviate his own emotional and psychological pain at the loss of being betrayed by his young ward, William Morton, who stole his discoveries giving him no credit. This was someone Horace thought he loved and treated like a son or brother.”

The cast has 16 actors including Michael Bakkensen (Playhouse’s “Light up the Sky”) as Horace Wells, William Youmans (Playhouse’s “Hands on a Hardbody”) as Dr. Jackson, and Tom Patterson (Playhouse’s “Sideways”) as William Morton.

The play highlights many characters in its multiple themes.

“There are father-son and teacher-mentor relationships, and if you’re not interested in medical diseases, surgeries or dentistry, I think we all had mentors or teachers like the one that called me at 5:45 this morning,” Wilson said. “Ether Dome” explores responsibility to those relationships and the reality that is often a blurred situation for many people as the lines can cross between exploiting and honoring.

“Liz is asking some pretty big questions with this play that delve into personal responsibility in medical ethics dealing with how our healthcare doles out — whether based on needs or means.”

IF YOU GO:

“Ether Dome” runs through Aug. 10 at the Mandell Weiss Forum at La Jolla Playhouse, UCSD campus. Tickets: From $15 at (858) 550-1010 and LaJollaPlayhouse.org

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