The setup: The 19th-century "invention" of surgical anesthetic, demonstrated at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1846 by dentist W.T.G. Morton, is the centerpiece of Elizabeth Egloff's extremely earnest bio drama, an Alley Theatre world premiere.
The execution: When dentist Horace Wells experiments with nitrous oxide as a potent anesthetic for dental surgery, he hallucinates a lovely young girl in white carrying a croquet mallet. I flashed to film master Preston Sturgis's The Great Moment (1944), a far less truthful but more personal treatment of Morton's story. After a decade of sparkling comedies, it's his first big disappointment, but it has heart, an unshakable core of conviction and a firm dramatic arc. Egloff's stolid medical epic needs less facts, more Sturgis.
She has cut up her lengthy story into three people -- all involved in the discovery of using ether as an inhaled anesthetic -- but they're so sketchily drawn they waft away like the fine mist that permeates the Neuhaus stage. We, and the play, drift away with them.
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Dentist Horace Wells (Michael Bakkensen, in a finely modeled performance) wants respect; his young eager partner William Morton, a wily opportunist (Sean Lyons in the part Joel McCrea played for Sturgis), wants fortune; and master geologist/chemist Dr. Charles Jackson (Jeffrey Bean), who colludes with Morton in his dubious patent for ether, wants fame. All three are terribly flawed people, as the historical facts bear out, but each could be his own play, they have so many facets. Egloff sets them spinning in cinematic short scenes that skim the surface of the characters, or cut off abruptly just when things get interesting, or are tangential to the themes at hand, even when those themes are rather vaporous.
Although sequences are staged with a movie's fluidity by acclaimed director Michael Wilson, the play arrives in fits and pieces. There are no surprises. The scenes in the operating theater are appropriately grisly and medieval, but the others pass by without affect. We never feel we're a part of this play, just spectators watching it unfold. As if to compensate for the lack of sustainable drama, the production is luscious: detailed costuming, lively sound and light design, bizarre yet accurate medical props, and a cabinet-of-wonders for a set. All the space needs is a play with characters we care about to fill it.
The verdict: Morton's use of ether during surgery was the great moment medicine so desperately needed to move forward. Sterilization of instruments and hands would come later, but unendurable pain was, at last, conquered. Egloff's drama needs a lighter touch. A sniff of Sturgis wouldn't hurt.
Through October 9. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. 713-220-5700.