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The word “ambitious” comes to mind in speaking about Ella Hickson’s play “Oil.”
In five separate but connected playlets, a single mother named May defies the odds to provide for her daughter Amy, any way she can.
May goes from almost starving on a Cornwall farm to achieving money and position and back again.
“Oil” interconnects issues such as energy and environment with seemingly small ones, like how mother-daughter relationships change over time.
“Oil” is on view at Olney Theatre Center, directed by Tracy Brigden. Freelancing after a 16-year position as artistic director of Pittsburgh Theatre Company, she is making her debut at the Montgomery County theater. Olney’s production marks the American premiere of “Oil,” thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
“Olney has an amazing national reputation,” Brigden said. “It’s known as a nurturer of new plays.”
The play opened in 2016 “to great success,” she pointed out. “It’s a big sprawling and very theatrical play, not easy to produce but very special.”
Some works, Brigden added, “Inherently cry out to be on stage, and this is one of them.”
“Oil” follows mothers and daughters over two centuries, from the dawn of the age of oil in 1889 to its peak-oil demise in the not-too-distant and dystonic future, circa 2051. It traverses five different locations, three in England, Tehran and Baghdad.
A type of time travel is involved during the play, but not in a science fiction sense.
“The question is whether these are the same women in each playlet or their consciousness is showing up in each,” Brigden said. “Maybe they’re archetypes. To my mind, and that of the actors, they’re the same.”
Catherine Eaton, who portrays May, the mother, agreed.
“Seeing it that way gives the play a longer arc and stronger storytelling,” said Eaton, who is making her debut at Olney; as is Megan Graves, who plays the daughter, Amy.
Eaton said she considers “Oil” “extraordinary. One of the best new plays I’ve read in 15 years, and I read a lot. It’s also incredibly ambitious. An epic play.”
One reason for Eaton’s enthusiasm is the complexity of the two female leads.“There aren’t enough of those plays” she said. “Nor are there many with the mother-daughter relationship at the center; it’s a massively emotional journey.”
There’s also a “great love story (that) is the heart of the play,” Eaton added. “We see May’s motivation and pain and why she makes the decision she makes.”
For all the personal emphasis, “Oil” also explores what she called “a sense of naivete and entitlement toward natural resources” and nation-state relationships.
Hers is not an easy role, May is onstage nearly the entire play, and the characters must speak in multiple dialects in various locations.
Costume and set changes are quick, said Brigden, though with some props and articles of clothing used throughout.
But the challenges are compensated by what Eaton called “the extraordinary and unique piece of writing. I’ve never experienced a play like this. It’s a gift to step into a role like this, so life-affirming.”
The other ensemble members play multiple roles in the play’s different eras. They are Sarah Corey, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Chris Genebach, Christopher McLinden, Eric Messner, Tuyet Thi Pham, Claire Schoonover and Sam Saint Ours.
“Oil” continues through March 31, including an audio-described performance for the blind and visually impaired on March 13 and a sign-interpreted one on March 21, both at 7:45 p.m.
The play is performed the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. www.olneytheatre.org. 301-924-3400.