Jordan Gross ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
The Huntington Theater Company’s production of Ether Dome, which plays at the South End/Calderwood Pavillion at the BCA, is based upon a true medical story. Set in 1846, the play explores the history of anesthetics used to treat surgical pain (laughing gas as well as ether). Written by Elizabeth Egloff, the ensemble of talented actors brings this play and these significant historical events to life. Egloff explores the ideas of competition, discovery, and medical treatment meeting big business. Egloff’s writing, though occasionally busy, is thoughtful and comes out serviced eloquently with the help of director Michael Wilson, the creative designers as well as the cast.
Michael Wilson has a lot of traffic and commotion to organize on stage with this piece. With an ensemble of over a dozen actors, there are many moving bodies on the set, in addition to the set and numerous props. However, the result of this traffic and commotion has a thought provoking pay-off. He manages to direct these scenes with a seemingly unrehearsed ease, while creating tension for the actors to play with, utilizing distance and obstacles. He knows when to put the emphasis on the Egloff’s text, and where to let the creative elements of the show shine. For example when the surgical procedures are mock-performed on stage, there is much important dialogue occurring about the use of anesthesia, but the cries and writhing of the patients are not lost within it. The lighting design, by David Lander, combined with the prosthetic and make-up, add enough spectacle for the show to be a medical thriller. However, the pain of the patients is not commercialized, so that it is done in a way that should be tolerable to all audiences.
In today’s age of theater, there’s been a slow but sure shift from exclusively physical scenic design to an emphasis on projection. At times this can cause problems, when projections become more of a distraction from the action of the play. In other instances, like Ether Dome, it can be a very effective way to tell the story, as well as a way to keep contemporary audiences invested. Ether Dome’s scenic design/projection designer James Youmans, has designed and created one of the most exquisite sets I’ve seen in a very long time. The use of projections adds something special to the mix. In this show, it helps tell the story by making the scenery come to life, as well as help the audience know which location we are exactly. The amount of detail used in the projections as well is something to not overlook. The projections and set helped further the plot along, just as much as the cast did acting the text.
An ensemble cast of 16 talented actors takes the stage to bring this play to life. The cast is led by Michael Bakkensen, who plays historical figure Horace Wells (a dentist), who discovered the value of using laughing gas during dental surgeries. Bakkensen’s take on his character appeared fully realized, and it was a delight to watch him perform. Also leading the cast is Tom Patterson, who plays the role of William Morton, the student of Horace Wells. Throughout the show Morton keeps trying to prove himself, by any means necessary. Patterson avoids taking the easy way out, and never plays the villain, but a young man who is trying to establish himself among the medical professionals- the hero of his own story. Patterson gives a great performance, that leaves you impacted when leaving the theater, asking the question, “How badly do you want it?”.
Williams Youmans who plays the part of Dr. Charles Jackson, steals the show with his finely honed acting skills. His movements and behavior are some of the most natural choices made on stage. It was an honor to watch Youmans take charge of the stage, especially in the final moments on stage, where the audience is just watching the behavior of Dr. Charles Jackson. It’s an ending that feels natural, honest, & beautiful. Emerson professor, Ken Cheesman appears in the production in the supporting role of Augustus Gould. Cheesman knows his way around the stage, and although only in a supporting role, is able to create an arch for this character- that could have otherwise have been easily overlooked. In addition, Emerson alumni Nash Hightower appeared in the ensemble. Hightower gives an energetic performance, and received well deserved laughter from the audience for his portrayal of Inman, a medical student.
Life imitates art. Ether Dome is a historical play, and although it may not be a favorite show for those who just want a casual theater going experience, no one can take away the collaborative work they are performing live eight shows a week. Although a few characters in this play want to collaborate, and then only give themselves credit, this was not the case with the ensemble driven cast, beautiful scenic design, the fashionable costumes, and the glorious lights. Director Michael Wilson has truly created a radiant and well formed piece of theater that allows everyone to shine, including the history of the true story.
Ether Dome runs at the South End/Calderwood Pavillion at the BCA until November 23rd.