The cast of "Mother Road" journey together in a cramped car on stage. (Margot Schulman)
The cast of "Mother Road" journey together in a cramped car on stage.

Margot Schulman

‘Mother Road,’ an inclusive modern spin on an American classic

February 25, 2020

“The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck follows the travels of Tom Joad’s family down Route 66, dubbed the “Mother Road.” Playwright Octavio Solís spins a modern sequel to Steinbeck’s iconic American novel in his play “Mother Road,” currently running at Arena Stage.

William Joad (Mark Murphey) resides on the Joad family farm in Oklahoma; though he is terminally ill, he insists on keeping the farm in the Joad family rather than selling it. After searching, he finds the only other living Joad remaining: Martín Jodes (Tony Sancho), a Mexican-American migrant worker. Seeing as Martín refuses to board a plane, the two must travel from California to Oklahoma together down Route 66, going the opposite direction of the Joad family’s legendary journey.

Unlike in “The Grapes of Wrath,” where family members die on the road, more and more people join William and Martín in their travels—the Joad family figuratively grows. The theme of family reoccurs throughout the play.

“I was involved with the National Steinbeck Center, and they asked me to go with them on a road trip to commemorate the 75th anniversary of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by John Steinbeck,” Solís said. “They wanted to take a similar trip down Route 66 to collect oral histories along the way with community partners that they had set up.”

While on the road, Solís interviewed many people to get their reactions to “The Grapes of Wrath.” Afterwards, he wrote “Mother Road,” documenting themes of dislocation, disenfranchisement, racism and ageism.

Today, migrant workers tend to remain fairly hidden, their existence constantly attacked by politicians. In a world where we are fed the rhetoric of how migrant worker are not American, Solís highlights Martín’s migrant worker background as an essential part of American identity in “Mother Road”—migrant workers play an irreplaceable role in United States history and deserve respect.

Sancho brilliantly portrays Martín’s stubbornness and moral compass—he will do whatever he believes is right, regardless of possible negative repercussions to his own wellbeing. Murphey does an excellent job acting out William’s character development, who eventually grows from arrogant and self-centered to tolerable and somewhat lovable.

Bill Rauch’s direction and Christopher Acebo’s set design jointly execute a fantastic job of utilizing the theater-in-the-round aspect of the Fichandler Stage; two billboards placed at opposing corners provide landmarks along the ever-changing scenery of the Mother Road. Sound Designer Paul James Prendergast’s selection of sound effects contributes to transforming the theater into Route 66.

“Mother Road” runs until March 8 at Arena Stage. The production is approximately two hours and 40 minutes, with a 15 minute intermission. Arena Stage offers a Pay Your Age program where theatergoers under age 30 can purchase tickets at the price of their age. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 202-488-3300.

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