“How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past?” So wonders the desperate Joad family in Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” as they burn their belongings before fleeing drought-stricken Oklahoma for a new start in California. Arena Stage’s inventive and moving Mother Road follows Tom Joad’s last living descendants as they reverse their ancestors’ westward journey and try to reclaim that abandoned past. It’s a rip-roaring road drama, buddy comedy, musical, and meditation on what it means to be “American”.
A desolate stretch of U.S. Route 66, known appropriately as “The Mother Road,” provides the dusty canvas for playwright Octavio Solis’ new chapter of the Joad family saga. The sandy boulders and faded lane markers of Christopher Acebo’s set provide a flexible space for director Bill Rauch and his cast to explore forgotten towns and hideaways from Oakland to Oklahoma.
Into this dusty space steps grizzled William Joad (Mark Murphey) and his longtime lawyer and friend Roger (Ted Deasy). In an unnamed part of California, the two discuss the urgent estate planning for the Joad family farm in Sallisaw, Oklahoma. Roger delivers a shock: William’s only living relative is a Mexican-American farmhand named Martin Jodes (Tony Sancho.) The Joads’ lone descendant out west is struggling to get by on odd picking and landscaping jobs. William makes Martin an offer he simply can’t refuse: Prove himself on a cross-country road trip, and he will inherit the Joad family ranch.
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As they set off down the Mother Road in an old pickup, William and Martin establish a great comic rapport, shooting the breeze about the odd pairing of an old Oklahoma farmer and a Chicano farmhand from Oakland. Clever, minimalistic screen displays (projection designer Kaitlyn Pietras) convey the pair’s progress through deserts, small towns, and big cities. The two men share stories from their lives, while hinting at deeper traumas that have shaped their worldviews.
An argument over a family Bible leads to a fight with bigoted strangers, forcing the two men to confront issues of race and immigration ripped from the headlines. The scene is a bit on the nose, but it effectively shows how the Joad/Jodes experience in America has changed along with their skin color. With each roadside stop, a Greek chorus of Mother Road travelers from decades before perform inventive scene changes while singing jaunty musical numbers. It’s a neat dramatic choice that places William and Martin’s journey alongside the ghosts of past migrations; they’re just another set of pilgrims following the great road toward their American Dream.
Martin’s cousin Mo (Amy Lizardo), a Chicana farm forewoman with a taste for wisecracks and booze, soon joins the journey in Martin’s old pickup. Lizardo injects much-needed comic relief into the tense car ride, rounding off Martin’s and William’s rough edges with infectious laughter and a happy go lucky attitude. The trio continue on, accumulating miles and stories as both Murphey and Sancho take turns in the spotlight. William bitterly recounts his sad post-Dust Bowl childhood in Oklahoma, reliving painful memories that sharpened his iron will to preserve the Joad legacy. Martin inadvertently reveals his inner demons in a dramatic showdown with a police officer on the side of the highway, all choreographed tightly by U. Jonathan Toppo.
Mother Road closes March 8, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
As the play barrels along highways and backroads toward its conclusion, the pickup gains two more passengers. Martin’s farmhand friend James (Cedric Lamar) adds a funky, metaphysical dimension with his embrace of organic farming as a means to restore both Mother Earth and the people living on her. Oklahoma farmhand Curtis (Derek Garza) goes from hostile stranger to friend in an instant, thanks to William’s newly expanded generosity of spirit.
The experiences of this motley crew, with their fights, jokes, songs, and traumas, add up to a sometimes bumpy but satisfying ride. It all funnels into playwright Solis’ central thesis for Mother Road: We are all pilgrims dependent on the land to sustain us, and that transcends arbitrary genealogy, race, and borders. So come for the raucous road trip, and stay for the side of shared humanity.
Mother Road by Octavio Solis. Directed by Bill Rauch. Cast: David Anzuelo, Natalie Camunas, Ted Deasy, Derek Garza, Cedric Lamar, Amy Lizardo, Kate Mulligan, Mark Murphey, Tony Sancho . Set design by Christopher Acebo. Costume design by Carolyn Mazuca. Lighting design by Pablo Santiago. Original music and sound design by Paul James Prendergast. Projection design by Kaitlyn Pietras. Wig design by Anne Nesmith. Associate direction by Kareem Fahmy. Fight direction by U. Jonathan Toppo. Movement consulting by Jaclyn Miller. Vocal coaching by Anita Maynard-Losh. Dramaturgy by Jocelyn Clarke and Tiffany Ana Lopez. Stage management by Kurt Hall. Assistant stage management by Emily Ann Mellon. Produced by Oregon Shakespeare Festival . Presented by Arena Stage. Reviewed by Ben Demers.
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