Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s ‘Mother Road’ brings powerful journey to Arena Stage

Inspired by John Steinbeck’s 'The Grapes of Wrath,' playwright Octavio Solis explores what it means to be a family, a farmer and an American

William Joad is a proud Oklahoma farmer with roots to the land as old and deep as the fields his family has tended for generations. But after decades of dedication, dust and sweat poured into the land, William is left with fading health and no heir to the Joad legacy.

Mark Murphey and Tony Sancho in ‘Mother Road’ at Arena Stage. Photo by Margot Schulman.

In Octavio Solis’ Mother Road, a modern-day continuation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, William sets out on a mythic journey to preserve his family’s legacy in reconnecting with the Joads who went West. When William learns his family tree now ends with Martín Jodes, a Mexican-American agricultural worker, he must reexamine what it means to be family, a farmer and an American. Directed by Bill Rauch, this Arena Stage production of Mother Road continually presses us to answer the questions “why are we here?” and “what survives after we are gone?”

Moving along the old Route 66, or the “Mother Road,” this beautifully woven tale of the many sides of America, the American Dream, and what it means to be a family is as captivating as it is challenging for contemporary audiences. Friction is deliberately infused into every moment, especially within the relationship of the perpetually-at-odds and yet remarkably similar two leads, William Joad played by Mark Murphey and Martín Jodes played by Tony Sancho.

Each a formidable actor in his own right, their combination throughout the play slowly and purposefully unfolds the complex reality of their characters — a farmer who stayed on the land through the tribulations of the Dust Bowl and an agricultural worker who can’t get his knowledge of Mother Earth to leave his hands no matter how hard he tries. There is always something more to discover about them and push the audience’s preconceived notions of who they are because of where they come from.

Supporting William and Martín in these transformations are the spunky and enduringly jovial Mo played by Amy Lizardo and the in-tune James played by Cedric Lamar (who also plays the Cook/Fight Captain). These scattered friends who gradually join the Route 66 caravan refocus Martín’s dream of home and flesh out more of how their lives are forever connected. Through casual road-trip soundtrack antics to violent clashes with strangers, the past is brought to light by admitting how things have changed as well as how they have stayed the same.

Integral to these meetings and conversations is the chorus that undertook the rest of the production’s many fleeting but impactful parts. Kate Mulligan as Ivy/William’s Mother/Police Officer; David Anzuelo as Abelardo/Ranch Hand; Natalie Camunas as Amelia/Chorus Leader; Ted Deasy as Roger/William’s Father/State Trooper/Ranch Hand; and Derek Garza as Curtis/Abelardo’s Father all make up a beautifully fluid dance of person, place, memory and thing.

The cast of ‘Mother Road.’ Photo by Margot Schulman.

Moving in highly choreographed, tightly-knit waves, the chorus becomes everything from vending machines to car parts, constantly moving around the stage, breaking into pieces and spinning on axis so the audience gets a better view of the scene at hand. The heavy emphasis on split lines functions like a Greek chorus sharing poetic truths as they bounce the words from person to person. It is a piece of art that reflects reality while staying aware of itself as art.

Central to creating this introspection is a creative team as strong as the cast. Mother Road is animated by the Bill Rauch’s creative direction. Taking full advantage of the inherent motion of theater in the round, choreography by Fight Director U. Jonathan Toppo and Movement Consultant Jaclyn Miller ebb and flow across diagonals and down the aisles in order to surround the audience in the story. Lighting by Pablo Santiago seamlessly transitions from day to night, flashback to present, storm to sun as the actors battle their own and the world’s demons while growing closer. The use of original music and sound design by Paul James Prendergast threads powerful moments of gathering, mourning, pleading and connection. And the costuming by Carolyn Mazuca and set by Christopher Acebo beautifully balances the play’s instability of reality of modern day to elevate the plot so it may be more closely examined and relatable.

An enlightening pairing of Mother Road, Mother Earth and those of us who walk both, Mother Road at Arena Stage is a stunning look at how memories and the ghosts of the past can drive a person to action. A journey of discovery and connection, Mother Road proves that each of us has the power to let them live or lay gently to rest, thereby changing the course of our lives, our communities and our chosen family.

Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival Production of Mother Road is playing through March 8, 2020 at Arena Stage – 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.


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