Ether Dome at The Huntington Theater

By Morgan Lehofer

These days, torture and surgery are not usually synonymous, but in a pre-anesthetic world the two were one and the same. Patients avoided surgery except in the direst situations, and even then many opted for suicide. Even surgeons dreaded the process; their patients’ agonized screams would often cause emotional trauma. Few people survived this primitive form of surgery, which is why the invention of anesthesia was so important in the world of medical history.

Ether Dome, a medical thriller set between Boston and Hartford, tells the story of the world’s first anesthetic, and explores the scientific, professional, and social implications of that groundbreaking

Ether Dome program.  |   Photo by Morgan Lehofer.
Ether Dome program. | Photo by Morgan Lehofer.


The play begins in the Hartford dental office of Dr. Horace Wells and his partner and former student, William Morton. Wells discovers laughing gas as a way to relieve pain during surgery, but the medical world fails to recognize the enormity of his finding. Then, Morton invents Letheon, a more advanced compound for pain relief, and the play details the partners’ battle for credit. Wells seeps into the clutches of insanity as his life begins to fall apart and Morton’s success transcends his own.

The idea for Ether Dome was conceived in Hartford after Michael Wilson – the artistic director of Hartford Stage Company at the time – discovered the story of Wells and Morton’s fight over the origins of anesthesia. Wilson commissioned Elizabeth Egloff to write the play, and the story of the first anesthetic was born.

Dr. Henry Bigelow (left), William Morton (center), John Collins Warren (right) about to begin surgery on patient Gilbert Abbot (seated), Photo by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy of the Huntington Theatre Company
Dr. Henry Bigelow (left), William Morton (center), John Collins Warren (right) about to begin surgery on patient Gilbert Abbot (seated).  |  Photo by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy of the Huntington Theatre Company.

Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Ether Dome was nothing short of spectacular. Standout performances include Michael Bakkensen’s Horace Wells and William Youmans’ Charles Jackson. Neither character is easy to master. Both are dynamic and three-dimensional, but these actors embodied their roles in a way that was believable and fun to watch.

The set, unimpressive at first glance, consisted of a back wall, four benches arranged in a circle, and a dome hanging from the ceiling near the stage lights. Soon after the performance began, that changed. The back wall was made up of several moving parts, which move throughout the different scenes. The actors moved tables, chairs, and paintings on and off the stage quickly and almost seamlessly during blackouts. (There was one instance where a pair of actors ran into the set with a gurney, but I think we can chock that up to opening night jitters.) Watching the set transform was actually one of the most entertaining parts of the show.

The show featured an extreme attention to detail that you don’t find in most production. By far, the most impressive part of Huntington Theatre Company’s Ether Dome was the lighting. Lighting can make or break a show, but the lights in this show did more than illuminate the stage. In Well’s office, for example, the lights cast shadows on the back wall in the shape of windowpanes to give the effect of a wall of windows where the audience was seated. Projectors cast wallpaper on the walls of Well’s house. Spotlights transitioned quickly and seamlessly to direct the audience’s focus.

Ether Dome presents history in a narrative style that captivates the audience. A trip down to Huntington will guarantee you leave with the same emotional catharsis the every show offers, as well as a few facts to throw around the next time you’re discussing 19th century medical breakthroughs.

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