A mother, a daughter, a worldwide dependence on a finite fossil fuel. The American premiere of British playwright Bella Hickson’s “Oil” is at Olney Theatre Center for the Arts (OTC), spanning centuries and continents within the confines of the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab using 10 actors, three languages and a healthy dose of magical realism.
“It’s epic!” said Sarah Corey, the Boston native who uses three languages (and two dialects) to play three characters in “Oil,” which is directed by Tracy Brigden. “There’s a lot there: I remember staying up late reading the script — I was blown away. So exciting, and female-driven…and unique! I had never read anything like it.”
That’s because “Oil” is a play that defies genres, focusing on the lives of a mother and daughter — May, played by Catherine Eaton, and Amy, Megan Graves — and following the age of oil from its start in 1889 to a point in the not-too-distant future.
“It’s a rumination on human beings’ relationship with oil,” Corey said. “And energy, and the natural resources of our planet — and how oil has changed modern society in ways that people 200 years ago would never have imagined.”
To dramatize that idea, Hickson takes liberties with time and place. “Every scene in the play takes place in a different country and a different time frame,” explained Corey, who plays three “kind of related” characters as the play unfolds in five separate but connected playlets that move the action from 19th century rural Cornwall to Tehran, London, Baghdad and back again to Cornwall. As the action unfolds, intimacy and worldwide scope are juxtaposed, with a mother-daughter dynamic set against universal ideas like feminism, environmentalism and imperialism. For Megan Graves, it’s a perfect pairing. “There are a lot of big concepts in the show, but they’re all communicated through the lens of a mother-daughter relationship,” said Graves, a Phoenix native who moved to Alexandria, Virginia at 13. “So actually it ends up being very intimate, which makes it perfect for the Lab.
“On the macro level, sure, there are a lot of big questions being asked, but on the micro level, it’s about two women encountering the intensity of their connection.” Graves, who has a bachelor of fine arts degree in acting from Shenandoah Conservatory, is making her OTC debut, as is Eaton, who plays her mother.
“Catherine Eaton is fantastic,” said Graves. “It’s been a joy to work with and learn from her. I love the complicated, messy, sticky nature of this mother-daughter relationship. It’s a strong bond, but it’s fraught.”
Graves said she started performing in high school, and her love of literature led her to acting as a career. “We would read Shakespeare aloud in class,” she recalled. “And I thought, huh, this feels like the most immersive way to experience the written word. That was a turning point for me as far as considering theater as a career I could actually see myself in.”
For Corey, it started even earlier. “I loved performing, ever since I was tiny,” she explained. “I knew it was what I wanted to do.” Growing up in a musical-artistic family, she said, music was “a big thing.
“My dad did a cappella at Princeton, where he went, and I went, and my little brother. He did a lot of theater, and his mother was a piano teacher.” Corey’s paternal grandmother emigrated from Beirut; not only did she teach her family to play the piano, she gave Corey an early head start on the Arabic one of her characters, Aminah, uses in the play. As Ana she speaks Persian, or Farsi — and Anne and Amina both speak English with different dialects.
“My father was the first person in his family to be born in this country,” said Corey, who has a bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in theater and performance studies from Princeton. “The Middle-Eastern Lebanese flavor was always very alive in our house. In fact, I’m actually using this time to learn Arabic, which is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.”
Corey said her dad speaks Arabic, and her relatives did, too, “but, growing up, it was more like ‘expressions.’ Everyone spoke English at home.”
Unlike castmate Maboud Ebrahimzad, who plays 19th century gas company representative William Whitcomb as well as Mr. Farouk, a Libyan OPEC minister in 1970. Ebrahimzad, last seen at OTC in “The Invisible Hand,” was born in Iran, grew up in Germany, and was happy to help Corey sound like a native speaker. “It’s tricky,” she said. “Often when you have a situation like this, you have a linguist come in to talk you through it, but we had such a short period of time to prepare.”
She learned her lines by ear from a recording, but was able to polish them with help from the cast — and technology. “I’m incredibly lucky to have resources like Mahoud, who actually speaks Persian, and has been invaluable,” she said. Persian and Arabic use different alphabets, she noted, “so personal resources have been very helpful. Kamal Helmy consulted on the Arabic. And YouTube has been an incredible resource, also!”
Corey and Graves both said that while “Oil” is brilliant and intricate, it comes together thanks to its strong director, innovative crew and tight-knit cast.
Blocking in the lab? “It’s like Tetris,” she laughed, noting that “for a contemporary play, 10 actors is a lot — but it doesn’t feel like a small stage space. Our director is incredibly adept at tricky staging.
“It’s an extraordinary cast, the strongest cast I’ve ever worked with,” she added. And Graves concurred: “The cast is super impressive and strong across the board,” she said. “But even more importantly (in my book), they’re all really good humans.”
“Oil” runs through March 31 in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at Olney Theatre Center for the Arts, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. Performances start at 7:45 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 1:45 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. A Sign-interpreted performance is set for 7:45 p.m. Thursday, March 21. Tickets begin at $54, with discounts available for groups, seniors, military and students. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.