Clare Duffy explores the icy relationship between a mother and daughter in her new production Arctic Oil. Locked together in a bathroom, a climate change denying mother and activist daughter are forced to confront daunting divides over family and the environment. The bathroom, often a catalyst for female conversational bonding, is the perfect setting to unearth darker subjects such as cancer, depression, and alcoholism. Jennifer Black as the mother, Margaret, and Neshla Caplan as the daughter, Ella, are fantastic on stage together, posing as the perfect foils to one another. The poised Margaret stresses a ‘mother knows best’ attitude as she struggles to keep control of her family, while Ella portrays an unhinged desperation as she watches the environment spin out of control. Arctic Oil is an excellent foray into mother-daughter relationships and intergenerational disputes on the environment; however, there is little sense of conclusion by the end of the play. While this work has the potential to highlight the importance of climate activism, it misses a big thematic mark.
Black plays the part of her generation exceptionally well. The mother’s character is presented with nuance and depth. The way she treats her daughter is very much built upon her generation’s values, and we watch as she struggles to put behind the struggles of her past and understand the dangers of climate change. To the mother, Margaret, family always comes first, even if it means supporting Big Oil and denying global warming. But as tensions escalate, Margaret feels the ability to protect her daughter slip away. We see a powerful, sure-footed woman one moment, and a scared, insecure mother the next. Black plays this part beautifully; her rigid posture initially reflects a woman who has had to work her entire life to protect her family. As the play reaches its climax, her monologue is eloquent and heartbreaking. During this speech, Black’s proud posture begins to slump, her strong words begin to waver. Margaret embodies the conservative baby boomer generation, but it is the hidden insecurity that truly makes her character shine.
The daughter’s character is given less care. While Caplan portrays Ella well, she is rarely afforded the opportunity to rationally argue the dangers of climate change. Ella is hysterical for almost the entire play, save the last fifteen minutes. And while Ella’s brief descriptions about the beautiful arctic bring a calmness and clarity to the stage, they are quickly buried under cries of desperation. Amidst the screaming and lashing out, we lose sight of Ella’s environmental concerns. Ella’s lack of rationality diminishes her environmental mission to mere liberal hysteria. Margaret never truly comes around to understand her daughter’s mission, and lacks empathy until the Ella mentions that her baby’s father is at the protest. As soon as it appears Ella was going to the protest to see the love of her life, rather than protest Arctic oil rigs, tensions start to dissipate between the two characters. For some reason, it’s okay for Ella to attend the protest while chasing the man of her dreams, but it’s not okay for her to actually take action against climate change. This severely detracts from the work of actual environmental activists, many of whom are in fact murdered for defending the environment. While Ella comes around to understand her mother’s instincts to protect their family, her mother never comes to understand Ella’s environmental concerns.
Duffy’s production is crammed full of emotion and tension and is often extremely engaging. The chemistry between Black and Caplan is truly a joy to watch and the subject matter captures many of the generational challenges to climate action. Still, despite the title, Arctic Oil skirts around the big issues. The climate is in crisis – scientists agree, the UN agrees, Ella agrees, yet throughout the play, we are left to question whether that crisis is actually more important than the degradation of family. Eventually, a near-death experience and emotional breakthrough bring the two characters together. While the play successfully reinforces the importance of family, Ella seems to shelve her environmentalism as she steps out of the bathroom with her mum.
Image: Roberto Ricciuti