The Oregon Shakespeare Festival Production of “Mother Road” is presently playing at Arena Stage until March 8, 2020. “Mother Road” is written by Octavio Solis and directed by Bill Rauch. It was first produced at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
The story is a sequel to the classic novel, John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” which followed the Joad family from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma to migrant labor farms in California during the Great Depression. “Mother Road” takes us to the present where William Joad (Mark Murphey), cousin to Tom, now owns the family farm in Oklahoma. Facing his death and being heirless, William still wants to pass his farm down to one of the family’s descendants. So, he travels west to California where his lawyer and longtime friend, Roger (Ted Deasy), has found the only direct descendant of the Joad family, a young Mexican-American farmworker, a young man named Martin Jodes (Tony Sancho).
The two travel back to Oklahoma on Route 66 on an epic road trip. On the trip, they meet several memorable characters, including Martin’s close friend, Mo (Amy Lizardo), a lesbian farmworker. At a diner, they meet Ivy whose family settled along the road in desperation on their way to California. Ivy remembers the Joads, but William looks down on her and her family for fleeing Oklahoma. During the trip, Martin has flashbacks about the woman he loves but left behind, Amelia (Natalie Camunas). Mo and William come across Abelardo (David Anzuelo), a hotel clerk with his own ghosts. The three have a conflict at the climax of the story with Curtis (Derek Garza) who is also not what he seems. Martin, who gets in serious legal trouble on the trek, seeks help from an old friend, James (Cedric Lamar) who eventually joins the group on their trip.
All the supporting actors play multiple roles and act like a Chorus commenting on the play in words, actions and even song (original music by Paul James Prendergast). They also play some inanimate objects, for instance, a car CD player, a gas pump, a television and vending machine. That adds some lightness to the show at some of the more intense moments but without being silly. These fine thespians also play the vagabonds on the road that open the show and who we see at various times during the trip.
This production has great talent and that in itself is easily “worth the price of admission” and then some.
Murphey gives an outstanding performance as William Joad. We feel his pain as he deals with cancer eating at his liver. We see William realize that his own preconceptions and misconceptions about others, as well as his own distortions of his life’s history, have caused him much unhappiness throughout his life.
Sancho brings great dignity to the role of Martin. Again, Martin has many layers he is hiding not from just his friends and William, but from himself. He also projects the rage that many victimized minority males feel. Yet, he is often quite compassionate to William as the elder newly found family member deals with his own emotional and physical pain.
Lizardo’s Mo is often the humor in the story, but she also has her own issues of loss. She also has to deal with the prejudices of others, not just about her ethnicity but her sexual choices.
Lamar is also very effective, especially as a born-again friend. His James is kind, but you would love to hear more of his story as Lamar reveals his character is a multi-dimensional individual. As the play draws to its conclusion, he sings a melody that sounds like gospel but is about the road of life spotlighting Lamar’s broad talent.
The rest of the cast are all very talented actors and each makes at least one of his or her roles quite memorable. Camunas shows Amelia’s sweetness, but we see her realistic side as well. Deasy also creates a very believable character as Roger who is very loyal to William, a father figure and benefactor to the attorney. Anzuelo transitions quickly from the hotel clerk who lives with his father’s hate, but learns to put that aside as he realizes that the only person hurt by that hate is himself. Garza in the role of Curtis also creates another very believable character whose life’s tale seems intriguing.
The direction by Rauch reflects Solis’ intent. This is a play about learning about ourselves and learning about our prejudices and how these ideas hurt others and ourselves. It also explores our need for family and roots. The plot delves into how our past often haunts us throughout our lives unless we can face it. There are some social and political themes as well about how the poor are really brothers and sisters, manipulated to turn on each other by many in power.
Sometimes, the writer hits too hard. However, the play which runs well over two hours moves quickly, and we wait in anticipation to find out some of the hidden surprises about the characters thanks to the sharp direction.
The set at the start is minimal, some rocks and cut-outs of mountains. There are two large screens opposite each other in this theatre in the round stage that say, “California Fruit Sold Here” and “Farm Fresh Next Exit.” However, as the lights come up, there is a road projected on the stage. As the play progresses, the screens project slides and videos of hotel names, diners and just the landscapes passing by as the group moves from California to Arizona, to New Mexico, to Texas and finally Oklahoma. I really like the starlit sky created on the ceiling of the theatre. This is due to the genius of Kaitlyn Pietras, the Projection Designer.
That is not to say the Scenic Designer, Christopher Acebo isn’t effective as well. He creates a truck that is split in two pieces so it can be shown in its entirety, or we can just see the truck bed or the cab. He also has a diner appear right before our eyes, split apart and rejoin. Hotel rooms and lobbies float in and out. He even has a sandpit appear on stage filled with real, or realistic, dirt.
Prendergast not only creates some interesting music which helps set the mood but brings in some incidental music and background sounds that complement the story and set.
The Lighting Design by Pablo Santiago works well with the set and projections. I appreciate that even when it was nighttime in the play the lights are never too dim. You can always clearly see the actor’s faces.
Carolyn Mazuca’s costumes are interesting and sometimes symbolic. The bridal dress has an extremely long train as does the mantilla worn by Camunas at the end. Police uniforms are accurate as is the clothing worn by the farmworkers.
If you have read “The Grapes of Wrath,” you will appreciate the tying-up of some of the novel’s loose ends about Tom and his family. However, even if you never even heard of John Steinbeck, you will be moved by the story of this branch of the Joad family and maybe get insight into your own misconceptions and prejudices. This production has great talent and that in itself is easily “worth the price of admission” and then some. Unfortunately, it will only be playing one more week. Catch your own ride to Arena Stage and don’t miss this most interesting trip down “Mother Road.”
Running Time: Two hours and 25 minutes with an Intermission.
Advisory: “Mother Road” is recommended for mature audiences due to language and some violent situations.
“Mother Road” will be performed at Arena Stage until March 8, 2020. For tickets and information about this show go online.
Arena Stage is located at 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, D.C. 20024
For an interesting look at the Projection Designer for “Mother Road,” Kaitlyn Pietras – see our ‘A Quick 5’ interview with her.