On the face of it, a play about anesthesia sounds like well, a sleeper.
But once you find out that it's about the dentist who discovered the use of anesthesia in the 1840s and that he was "a very godly man who ended up a chloroform addict and in jail in New York City having assaulted two prostitutes and dead at own hand at age 33, leaving a penniless widow behind of age 30 and a younger son," according to director Michael Wilson -- well then you have something, don't you?
That's what Wilson, the former associate director of the Alley Theatre, thought when he first encountered the tragic story of Horace Wells a few years ago after stumbling across a statue of the man in Hartford, Connecticut. Wilson sought out friend and frequent collaborator, playwright Elizabeth Egloff to suggest this might make a good play, and after several years of work on the project, Wilson has returned to the Alley to present the world premiere of Ether Dome.
So striking is the story of the dual nature of a man that "Robert Louis Stevenson had used him as the model for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," Wilson said. But there's more to this many-layered story than just that, Wilson told Art Attack. There is love, class wars set against a changing America and betrayal. And there's the little matter of the play also being about "the beginning of commercialization of medicine in our country. It could not be a more timely or more relevant play." Wilson said.
"Horace Wells conceives the idea of inhalation anesthesiology and has a failed experiment in Boston that leads to his despair and depression," Wilson explained. "And then his protégé William Morton essentially takes the idea, does a riff on it, passes himself off as a Harvard Medical student, which he was not, and steals the idea from Horace."
Alley Artistic Director Gregory Boyd thought well enough of Ether Dome after hearing a reading that it is leading off the 65th season of the Alley - a pretty unusual move for a new play. The Alley will follow that up a month later with Horton Foote's Tony-nominated comedy Dividing the Estate, which will also be directed by Wilson. This will enable him, he said, to watch how Ether Dome is going as he begins rehearsals for the next production.
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"I can go in and see how audiences are responding to the play. I do believe this is an important new American play that will have life beyond Houston, so this initial production is very important," Wilson said.
Wilson was artistic director of the Hartford Stage for the last 13 years. "I grew up in North Carolina then Boston and I worked at Harvard, then spending 13 years in Hartford - everything in my life has been in preparation for doing this play."
Despite his betrayal of his mentor, the character William Morton is not a one-note figure, Wilson said. "Society needs ambitious people. But should we have boundaries to our ambition? Should we balance that with the love and fidelity we have for people who have given us an opportunity? The 1840s were much more class-driven than it is even today. What William Morton achieves is very much about democratization of America. William is the quintessential American spirit working to overcome humble beginnings and make something of himself."
Ether Dome runs September 9 through October 9 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue. For tickets go to www.alleytheatre.org or call 713-220-5700.