The Trip to Ether Dome
Michael Wilson’s Return to Hartford Stage
by Theresa MacNaughton, Community Engagement Associate
A chapter from Hartford’s history will be taking center stage in Ether Dome – giving former Artistic Director Michael Wilson an opportunity to honor his own past with a return to Hartford Stage. Wilson is directing the psychological thriller, penned by Farmington native Elizabeth Egloff, which is based on the true story of Hartford dentist Horace Wells and the discovery of anesthesia. Wilson’s journey since departing Hartford Stage has been – in a word – bountiful.
Wilson is currently celebrating a 2014 Emmy nomination for the Lifetime Television film of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful. The film, which marks Wilson’s television directorial debut, follows the 2013 Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of the play – also directed by Wilson. The made-for-television film stars Cicely Tyson and Vanessa Williams (who reprised their Broadway roles), as well as Blair Underwood and Keke Palmer.
Having directed acclaimed productions of Dividing the Estate, The Trip to Bountiful, The Carpetbagger’s Children, Death of Papa, and The Orphans’ Home Cycle, Wilson has been a longtime admirer of Foote’s work. It was Wilson’s collaboration on our stage production of Bountiful – assisted by Foote (with whom he had developed a close relationship) – that ultimately led to last year’s Broadway revival. The play earned four 2013 Tony Award nominations – including a win for Cicely Tyson as Best Actress.
“Everyone (in our company) feels that this is the moment to bring The Trip to Bountiful back to Broadway for the first time in 60 years,” Wilson explained in a Broadway.com article written last year. “Our nation needs to experience this story. We need to consider the themes that Horton is exploring: that if we don’t honor the past—the places, the people, the communities from where we’ve come—we are in danger of losing the very essence of ourselves…”
Ether Dome also honors the past and, specifically, Hartford history. The play is the culmination of nearly 10 years’ work. Wilson stumbled upon the concept for Ether Dome after coming across a statue of Horace Wells in Hartford’s Bushnell Park. He commissioned long-time collaborator Egloff (an Emmy nominee for Showtime’s The Reagans) to write the play in 2005. Ether Dome debuted at the Alley Theatre in Houston in 2011, where Wilson served as associate director from 1990 to 1998 – prior to becoming artistic director at Hartford Stage.
“It’s amazing to work on a play that is set in this time of 1846 and explores the moment in our history when they were doing amputations, tumor removals and vasectomies without any kind of anesthesia. It’s hard to grasp how people could endure the pain; and, of course, the answer to that is they often couldn’t. Sometimes people would die of shock on the operating table,” Wilson told the La Jolla Light. The play recently finished its run at the La Jolla Playhouse in California.
“Ether Dome has many layers that touch on far more than treatment to eradicate pain, and how a doctor and his student play out an epic battle between altruism and ambition,” Wilson explained. “The play has a parallel exploration of substance abuse as we particularly see in Horace’s case, and the explorations of these gases lead him to find them exhilarating and ecstatic, not unlike recreational drugs today. That became a way for him to alleviate his own emotional and psychological pain at the loss of being betrayed by his young ward, William Morton, who stole his discoveries giving him no credit. This was someone Horace thought he loved and treated like a son or brother.”
What’s next for Wilson? In another homage to his past, he will soon return to the Alley Theatre to direct the Southwest premiere of Foote’s The Old Friends, starring Betty Buckley, Hallie Foote, Annalee Jefferies, and Veanne Cox. The play finishes its run in early September – just days before Wilson’s much-anticipated return to Hartford Stage and the East Coast premiere of Ether Dome.