“Oil” by Ella Hickson is now playing at the Olney Theatre Center directed by Tracy Brigden. The play originally opened at the Almeida Theatre in London in 2016.
Describing the plot of “Oil” is tricky. Each scene, which the playwright calls ports, could be a One Act play on its own. The first port is 1889 in Cornwall, England in the home of a poor farming family, struggling to get food and fuel to heat their home. May (Catherine Eaton) and her mate, Joss Singer (Chris Genebach), live there with Joss’s family, including two married siblings and his mother. May has just found out she is pregnant when into their lives comes an American entrepreneur who wishes to start open an oil refinery. May sees enlightenment in this new fuel, but Joss does not. At this point, May leaves, not only the farmhouse but jumps to another time and place. May and her now adolescent child, Amy (Megan Graves), are in Iran, where May works as a waitress for the rich English colonialists, trying to gain control of Iran’s oil.
In this port, the relationship between May and her daughter, Amy (which is an anagram of her mother’s name) is established as somewhat contentious. After some enticements to stay made by the men they meet, May is on her way to yet another time and place. We are transported to Hampstead, England, and the year is now 1970. May is an oil company executive, and Amy is a promiscuous teenager. Qadhafi has taken over Libya and is not so gently, trying to diminish British control of their oil. May is trying to handle that situation and the romantic relationship of her 15-year-old daughter.
Act II opens in Iraq in the future year 2021. There has been another Iraq War, and Amy has befriended a young Iraqi woman, Aminah (Sarah Corey). May arrives to bring her wayward daughter back home against Amy’s wishes. Conflict resurfaces for the pair.
For those who love provocative and artfully done theatre, Oil is a must-see show. Don’t let it slip away before you get your ticket.
The final port is back on the farm. May is now as old as Ma Singer. Amy is now about 40 or so. Oil is scarce and the cost makes it hard for people to afford to heat their homes again. May and Amy are still verbally sparring. Both talk about giving up their romantic lives to achieve their goals.
There are several points I believe Hickson is making. First, oil is like iron or bronze. It will, by limitations of availability, soon disappear from human society but not without having vastly changing it. It is only through oil that we have electricity and with that has come women’s rights and freedom as they are no longer tied to homemaking as modern appliances have released their shackles. It also makes a point about how large corporations and governments have turned world politics upside down in their zeal to control the lifeblood of our modern technology. Finally, it is a story about mother-daughter relationships. It shows how mothers see themselves in their children, and how in the end the girl begins to reflect her parent more and more.
There is plenty of imagery, too much to list, but if you watch the two woman mirror the other’s personal history. In the first scene May is unhappy on the farm, and in the final scene, it is Amy. In Port 2 May runs off to Iran, and in Port 4 Amy has gone to Iraq. In the third scene, May talks about her loneliness and her decision not to seek romantic love. Amy does the same in the fourth.
The acting, however, is what makes this a superior production. Eaton as May helps us understand this complex character that seems to be in a time machine gone out of control. In Port 3 her verbal domination not just of Amy’s boyfriend but of her fellow executive will leave you emotionally exhausted. Her passionate scenes with Joss are totally convincing.
As Amy, Graves has the challenge of growing from a child to a middle age woman. She is as believable as the little girl missing her teddy bear, as the h***y rebellious teen, as the idealist who has to give up her dreams and finally as the bitter middle age woman now caring for her mother.
They are backed by an outstanding supporting cast. Genebach brings stature to the humble farmer. Maboud Ebrahimzadeh captures the charming William Whitcomb as well as the angry, newly empowered Libyan, Mr. Farouk. Tuyet Thi Pham provides a little comic relief as the sinister Fan Wang and also plays Fanny, one of the Singer family. Eric M. Messner does a stellar performance in the role of Thomas, the man emasculated twice by May once as her would be lover and later as her coworker. Claire Schoonover conveys the tired and resentful Ma Singer whose face haunts May until the end.
A stand out performances was delivered by Corey who played three roles, Anna Singer, Ana, the Persian maid who speaks only Farsi and, most notably as Aminah, the Iraqi friend of Amy. Aminah steals the scene when she opens Amy’s eyes to the real suffering of the Iraqi people (and many in the oil-rich countries). I also found Sam Saint Ours’ Nate to be, beside Aminah, one of the few really likable characters. The young actor hits the mark making Amy’s boyfriend a typical hapless teen outwitted by his adult adversary, May.
The direction by Brigden moves the story along as it can get bogged down at times. The play is long for modern drama, and the first act runs over 90 minutes. However, the brisk pace of the acting helps to keep us attentive.
Luciana Stecconi designed the set, which along with Daniel Brodie’s projection design helps to change the atmosphere whether we were in damp and cold Cornwall or the deserts of Iran and Iraq. The back curtain opens to reveal extremely neatly stacked pieces of furniture, that were put together like Lincoln Logs, and it looked like it would fall like a house of cards if a piece was removed. I am not sure of the meaning, but it is visually interesting.
Colin K. Bills, Lighting Designer, and Robert Croghan and Michael Kross as Costume Designers also distinguish themselves by helping us feel like we really are jumping through decades on this theatrical time machine.
For those who love provocative and artfully done theatre, “Oil” is a must-see show. Don’t let it slip away before you get your ticket.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes with an Intermission.
Advisory: This play is recommended for mature audiences only due to strong language and sexual situations.