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BWW Reviews: OIL at Olney Theatre Center - It's an American Premiere

BWW Reviews: OIL at Olney Theatre Center - It's an American Premiere

Let me start this review with a comment by Olney's Artistic Director, Jason Loewith's comment in the program. "After all my years in this business, many of them championing playwrights and new plays, it takes a lot to knock my socks off. I can count on two hands the experiences that reshaped by understanding of live theater and its possibilities. The world premiere of Ella Hickson's OIL in London two years was one of them. It is a blazingly, ambitious, as intellectually thrilling, as emotionally resonant as most the great works I've seen this century."

He adds, 'OIL is the opposite of small. It's big and restlessly complex, a time-traveling epic with flashes of heartrending intimacy...It's a stunning and theatrical play."

Cue the publicists!! These quotes are all you need.

As Loewith describes, OIL is not just one play, but five in which the discovery of oil and all of its ramifications around the world are explored. Initially it begins on a family farm in Cornwall, England in the 1880's (home to the famous BBC production of "Poldark") in which an American (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) drops by the "cold" farmhouse, lit only by candlelight, introduces them to the magic of Kerosene (and the suddenly the home is light up beautifully by Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills) and expresses the desire to buy the farm for an outrageous price to stock oil. The leading female is "May" (the terrific Catherine Eaton) and she is pregnant with her powerful husband Joss (the wonderful Chris Genebach who I will always remember in Olney's CAROUSEL). Joss opens the show splitting firewood.

We then move ahead 30 years ahead to Persia where the British Admiralty is beginning to exploit the petroleum underneath the sands of Tehran. "May" now has an eight-year-old daughter, "Amy" (the electric Megan Graves) who speaks Farsi. "Amy" is now a servant and during a party for the English meets Navy Officer Samuel (the terrific Christopher McLinden) who has his eyes on romancing "Amy".

We then fast forward to the 1970's London during the time Libya's oil fields have been nationalized and "May" is visited by a Libyan negotiator also played by Ebrahimzadeh. "May" is now a brief-case toting businesswoman dealing with her now sixteen-year-old daughter (Graves again) who is into boys, pot, and ice cream.

The play then shifts back to Baghdad in the near-future and as displayed in the play GROUDED (at Olney in 2015) shows drones hovering over the landscapes by excellent projections designed by Daniel Brodie.

Finally, it's back to Cornwall, 30 years in the future where there is no oil and the family is introduced to a woman from China (Tuyet Thi Pham) with a new contraption that gets energy from the moon.

To say this play is complex is an understatement. It may not be for everyone. But I applaud Olney for attempting to bring it to American audiences. Director Tracy Brigden does a yeoman's task in pulling this altogether. The ensemble cast is terrific. The sound is so realistic I thought cars, engines, planes were all in the theater. Thanks to Sound Designer Kenny Neal. Kudos to Scenic Designer Luciana Stecconi, and Costume Designers Michael Krass and Robert Croghan.

OIL runs until March 31. For tickets, call 301-924-3400 or visit

Olney just announced next season's line-up and it's spectacular: It opens with the classic CABARET and adds musicals such as SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, and my all-time favorite - PIPPIN. Also included is the Tony Award winner for Best Play, THE HUMANS.

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From This Author Charles Shubow