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Huntington's 'Ether Dome' is anything but numbing

Paul Marotta

While “Ether Dome,” a play about the discovery of anesthesia use during surgery, may sound like a snoozefest, the Huntington Theatre Company’s latest production is actually anything but.

At nearly three-hours (including two brief intermissions), the somewhat convoluted story could use a healthy nip/tuck, but at its core, there lies a fascinating, historically accurate tale that holds your attention from start to finish.

This co-production of the Hartford Stage and La Jolla Playhouse makes you squirm as they reenact archaic surgical procedures from tooth extraction to limb dismemberment, pre-anesthesia. The jarringly authentic screaming of the patients under the knife is enough to make you grateful to live at a time when the actual Ether Dome at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) is an historical landmark.

The story begins in Hartford, Connecticut, circa 1846, when Dr. Horace Wells, a popular dentist, and his ethically-challenged young protégé William Morton discover that laughing gas (nitrous oxide) makes dental procedures pain free.

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The pair eventually makes their way to MGH to demonstrate how this newfound anesthesia could benefit surgical patients. All doesn’t go as planned and they are laughed out of the hallowed institution by the stodgy Brahmin physicians who run it.

An incredibly bizarre confluence of circumstances unfold that not only make for great theater, but result in the game-changing use of ether as an anesthetic. Power, money, social status and ethics all come into play as this unlikely group struggle for the perks, privilege and notoriety that accompany such a major scientific discovery.

Michael Bakkensen nicely captures both the rise and frightening fall of Dr. Wells, while Tom Patterson is charmingly pathological in his portrayal of Mr. Morton. The ensemble of actors who play the MGH physicians, led by Richmond Hoxie (Dr. Warren) and William Youmans (Dr. Jackson), are perfectly arrogant and stuffy as old school doctors playing God.

Local history

Part of the appeal of this production might be that much of the true story took place in our own backyard, and that there are still buildings at MGH that were named after some of the characters. When not in use as a teaching amphitheater, the Ether Dome is open for visitors. Visit www.massgeneral.org/history/exhibits/etherdome/ for details.

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If you go

“Ether Dome”

Through Nov.23

Calderwood Pavilion, BCA

539 Tremont St., Boston

Starting at $25,617-266-0800

www.huntingtontheatre.com ​

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