Ella Hickson’s OIL is a theatrical marvel that spans the lives of May (Bahareh Yaraghi) and Amy (Samantha Brown), a mother and daughter whose paths are steered by the equal parts wonderful and terrible force that is oil. Directed by ARC Artistic Producer Christopher Stanton, and Resident Artist Aviva Armour-Ostroff, this production is full of compelling and quotable dialogue driven by stirring, nuanced acting in a very timely snapshot of how remarkably the advent of oil products has shaped and driven economical growth in both small and literally groundshaking ways.

The five-part play starts in 1889 in Cornwall, England, shifts to 1908 in Tehran, 1970’s London, 2025 in Kurdistan, then finally 2051 back in Cornwall. The jump from each time frame tracks the growth and development of oil from its first uses in lamps, all the way to its eventual projected replacement by cold fusion — through each part, we are told a story of its overriding influence on the world through the eyes of a single mother.

When May’s husband shows reticence in adapting to the unstoppable force of change, May flees with Amy in pursuit of freedom from a poor, simple life. Dragging her daughter across Europe and into the oil fields, May seeks and succeeds (or so she believes) in harnessing the monster that is Oil… but it is soon clear that she is not the only whirlwind force that seeks this power and fortune, and there are much bigger forces seeking to cash in.

Passionate, articulate, and driven to a fault, May is a fearsome force when it comes to protecting her child Amy. Bahareh Yaraghi absolutely steals the show as May. Her ability to tremble with rage, to shake with fear, and wail with sadness in such compelling ways deftly brings OIL to life and really deepens the audience’s immersion — she is definitely an actress to be watched. That said, the entire cast had beautiful chemistry, and in particular watching Samantha Brown’s interactions with her mother as Amy was remarkably well-acted and realistic.

May instills deep strength and independence in her daughter, but later questions her choices in making a daughter that is just like her — a young woman hardened against love, a young woman who carries the burden of a desire for freedom that was once May’s, even unintentionally. There is such a thing as being ‘too much’ woman in a world that is generally dominated by men. OIL addresses the friction of May’s almost eternal battle with the men around her very frankly and openly, and watching May express her frustration as she struggles with these ties and bonds is a fascinating facet of this work. One male character even stops mid-argument to say “You’d be so feminine, if only…” We watch as, again and again, she is undermined and underestimated by the world around her, we watch her develop a hard persona against it, and witness her regret as her life draws to a close…
“What if all that ‘control and manipulation’ was really love?”

OIL is a well-crafted and incredibly moving piece of art that carefully weaves a poignant story. Though it is relatable, it is also hard-hitting and critical of the industry in some very interesting ways — through the foibles of its characters, OIL paints an oftentimes dark picture of what can happen to those who can’t help but be trampled by forces much larger than they, but maintains a delicate balance of humanity and realism with fantasy and futurism. One can’t help but reflect and draw similarities with the seriousness of Canada’s very own Wet’suwet’en pipeline disputes — when profit outweighs life, everyone loses.

Editor’s Note: OIL was forced to close early on account of COVID-19; we hope to see a remount at some point in the future.