There are a few shows – very few – which on first viewing have left me breathless. The original productions of Sweeney Todd and Copenhagen come quickly to mind. To this small list add the American premiere of British playwright Ella Hickson’s Oil at the Olney Theatre Center.
Hickson’s nothing less than brilliant script traces three interlocking arcs over a 162-year span: the rise and fall of petroleum as the engine of progress and politics, the related waxing and waning of Western (especially British) imperialism, and, most importantly, the fierce, close, and fraught relationship of a mother and daughter as oil-driven changes in the world affect it.
It’s not just these large story arcs that interlock. Characters in the five-scene play often use the same words or actions in one scene as they or other characters have used in previous scenes, reflecting backward and forward on changes in meaning of the same word or action over time. It’s an impressive feat of intricate playwriting engineering.
The central characters are May (Catherine Eaton) and her daughter Amy (Megan Graves). We first see May, pregnant with Amy, in the cold, harsh environment of a hardscrabble farm in Cornwall in 1889. She is passionately in love with her husband Joss (Chris Genebach), while passionately wishing to raise her child under better circumstances. Joss, like other members of the extended family, is tied to the land and the family’s traditional way of life, rejecting out of hand the use of a kerosene lamp proffered by a traveling American salesman (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), who speaks glowingly of the way his product will transform life.
May travels through time. We next see her as a servant in the British legation in Tehran in 1908, as the caddish Officer Samuel (Christopher McLinden) explains the logic of the imperialist oil imperative to May while trying to seduce her. Amy is now a smart, challenging, multilingual 10-year old. Fast forward to 1970, where May is an oil executive, in one evening trying to protect her now 15-year old daughter’s future from her present by breaking up her teenage infatuation while – having internalized the rationale of Western colonialism – stubbornly resisting demands from the new Libyan government to partially nationalize her firm’s assets. Thomas, a nervous yet more realistic executive (Eric M. Messner) and Mr. Farouk, the Libyan emissary (Ebrahimzadeh), have strong character moments in the scene.
May’s takedown of Amy’s hapless boyfriend (Sam Saint Ours) is the high point of the evening’s humor. But the conversation turns more serious as May insists that Amy focus on becoming the best, most independent, person she can be. In the fourth scene, set in Baghdad in 2021, Amy has become just that, a fearless worker in the dangerous conditions of the Middle East, yet oblivious to the situation of local people (Sarah Corey convincingly plays a series of roles representing people in colonized countries on the periphery of the Westerners’ consciousness). “I was wrong,” May says repeatedly, counting the cost in loneliness of her independence and the lack of love in her life.
Finally, the play circles back to the Cornwall farm in 2051, where the now elderly May and middle-aged Amy, dressed in winter coats and hats, endure the cold of a harsh winter in which oil reserves have been exhausted and electricity is rationed. A Chinese saleswoman (Tuyet Thi Pham), spouting a parallel to the imperialistic jargon of the British of a previous century, offers a miraculous new technology – a cold fusion unit – that will solve their energy problems. May and Amy respond as did Joss and May, respectively, in 1889, closing – or is it reopening – the cycle. (Interestingly, the plot focuses on “peak oil” without ever mentioning climate change, in a part of England typically unlikely to suffer the harsh winters portrayed in the first and last scenes.)
Stories about oil have usually focused on male striving – think Giant or There Will Be Blood – and the female-centered perspective Hickson offers is a bracing change. Like the play itself, the two leading performances are riveting. Graves does a marvelous job transitioning amongst her child, adolescent, adventurous young adult, and middle-aged selves, all distinct within a basic continuity of character. Eaton’s portrayal catches the protective, driven, decisive, sometimes commanding aspects of May, without losing sight of her vulnerabilities.
Working with actors to develop characters who undergo significant changes over a long time span, not to mention working with several actors playing multiple roles, is an imposing task, and director Tracy Bridgen handles it flawlessly. She also keeps the pace moving smartly; the 95-minute first act, for example, doesn’t drag for a moment.
The technical side of the production is equal to the occasion. Collin K. Bills’ lighting starts the evening in outstanding fashion, creating the dark, claustrophobic feel of an old farmhouse in winter before kerosene or electricity. Each succeeding scene gets its own lighting scheme, fitting the time and place. When a new technology appears – the first scene’s kerosene lamp or the final scene’s cold fusion device – the lights blaze up accordingly.
Kenny Neal’s sound design is timed precisely to the action with cars starting audience left or right – a recurrent theme much like the repeated lines of the characters – and wind howling when doors are opened. The dominating feature of Luciana Stecconi’s set is a floor-to-ceiling upstage array of furniture and other set pieces, some of which are moved onto the main playing area for each scene.
Melding large-scale themes with a deep and complex primary relationship, Oil succeeds on intellectual and emotional levels. Playing in the relatively small capacity, black box Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, it fully deserves the sellouts it is likely to get.
Running Time: Two and a half hours, including one intermission.