The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The British hit ‘Oil’ strikes a vein in its U.S. debut at Olney

From left, Megan Graves, Tuyet Thi Pham and Catherine Eaton in the U.S. premiere of Ella Hickson's “Oil,” at the Olney Theatre Center. (Teresa Castracane)
Placeholder while article actions load

The vision of British playwright Ella Hickson’s novelistic drama “Oil” is dazzling. In five chapters, the story sweeps from 1889 to the mid-21st century, pretty much exhausting the petrochemical age. That’s daring enough, yet the astonishing thing is how Hickson spins this epic political tale in the context of a gripping mother-daughter story.

“Oil” is getting its U.S. debut in the small lab space at the Olney Theatre Center, but director Tracy Brigden’s production feels as if it could hold any stage in the city. Catherine Eaton leads a commanding cast as May, an expectant mother in frigid Cornwall when the saga begins. A metaphor of maternal instincts drives Hickson’s plot, and Eaton’s forceful, fretful May is a kaleidoscope of survival instincts as the story hurtles across generations.

The musical ‘Once’ sounds fit as a fiddle at Olney

The show opens in a bitter cold you would swear you can feel on Luciana Stecconi’s dark, wood-toned set. The Cornwall winter is brutal, and an extended family, barely surviving, is tearing into one another.

In walks an American salesman peddling kerosene and offering to buy their land, and that’s all it takes for Hickson to trigger a conflict with still-smoldering global ramifications. The emotional energy in the first chapter comes from Eaton’s pregnant May, who burns with desire for her husband (Chris Genebach, radiating frontier masculinity) but craves warmth and safety so much that she makes a startling decision.

Hickson’s storytelling gambit is to show May and her daughter, Amy (Megan Graves), aging only a little as the world ages a lot. Amy is a bilingual kid in 1908 Tehran, where May is an illiterate servant working for the British authorities. Amy is a rebellious teen in 1970 London as May works for a British oil company losing control of fields in Libya. Mother and daughter are older still in 2021 Baghdad and, coming full circle, in 2051 Cornwall.

Amy is a terrific role for Graves, who mines every seam of daughterly resentment and superiority as the young adult swearing she doesn’t need rescue by her powerful mother in a dangerous Iraq. Graves and Eaton are fluid together — and entirely natural: The arguments feel familiar and organic. The long-term boom and crisis they’re living through steals upon you slowly and hits hard when Hickson reaches her final stages.

The ensemble of 10 includes Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as emissaries (in different eras) from the United States and Libya, Tuyet Thi Pham in a similar role from China, Christopher McLinden as an entitled British officer and Sarah Corey as an Iraqi friend of Amy’s, with actors speaking convincing Farsi, Arabic and Mandarin as required. The costumes by Michael Krass and Robert Croghan guide us across years and cultures, teaming with Colin K. Bills’s lights to suggest the essence of living conditions. The 2016 play arrives here as conversation grows around a “Green New Deal,” and the relevance of Hickson’s entertaining, unnerving portrait won’t burn out for quite some time.

John Feffer’s solo “Next Stop: North Korea” is a humbler venture that’s also in the swim of headlines: Feffer’s show opened Friday night at the tiny D.C. Arts Center as President Trump returned from his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The lone stark moment in Feffer’s 75-minute performance comes near the top, as he plays a Scottish tour guide intimidating us — presumed customers on a North Korea tour — with a reminder about the fate of Otto Warmbier.

The rest is travelogue. Feffer is well informed but not very theatrical as he embodies a couple of personas in North Korea and ponders the gap between collectivism and individualism, tyranny and freedom. The bare-bones show, directed by Angela Kay Pirko, features slides and includes a slate of smart-sounding talk-backs throughout the run. It’s a sober briefing but not repurposed enough to rattle your conscience.

Oil, by Ella Hickson. Directed by Tracy Brigden. About 2 hours and 45 minutes. Through March 31 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, Md. $54-$74. 301-924-3400.

Next Stop: North Korea, written and performed by John Feffer. Directed by Angela Kay Pirko. About 75 minutes. Through March 24 at the D.C. Arts Center, 2438 18th St. NW. $20. 202-462-7833.

Rich acting pays off in ‘The Heiress’

The comic ‘Admissions’ tests white privilege and getting into college

Broadway still has a crush on jukebox musicals