Monday, July 1, 2019

"Mother Road": Day Two, Play Two, Theatre Eddys Goes to the 2019 Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Mother Road
Octavio Solis

Mark Murphey & Tony Sancho
Seventy-plus years have past since the Joad family of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath joined a parade of desperate migrant farmers, all leaving their starving lives in Dust-Bowl-ravaged and looking for the lush life they saw painted on fruit crates from California.  Two Joads – a mother and her little boy, William – did not join the clan in 1939 but instead remained behind to eek out a living and wait for a husband/father who never returned.  William is now old and dying of a liver too long abused; but before he passes on, he wants to find a Joad to inherit his vast farmland in order to keep it from being sold to developers.  His national search finds that Joad, a great-grandson of William’s first cousin, Tom; but this California-born Joad is now a Jodes named Martín.  Moreover, Martín is Mexican-American, leading to the cracker-white, Okie William to gasp and then spit out a disgust-filled, “Oh, sweet Jesus.”

With this opening premise, Octavio Solis begins his newest play, Mother Road, now in a totally captivating, deeply affecting, and crucially timely world premiere at the 2019 Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  When William reluctantly decides to give Martín a chance to prove he deserves to carry on the Joad name and land ownership in Oklahoma, the two set out in Martín’s old pick-up, following in reverse order the road that brought the original Joads to Southern California, Route 66.  As they travel this “mother road” that birthed so many stories of migrant migrations, the septuagenarian and the late teen each undergo a transformative journey full of difficult and sometimes painful acknowledgements and discoveries.  But in the end, facing their pasts helps each to find a present where first-blush differences begin to blend together to allow deep-rooted similarities to emerge.  In doing so, the two help us all to see what a future America can and will look like – one where our many differences along every possible spectrum are the norm, the hope, and the salvation.

Tony Sancho & Mark Murphey
Mark Murphey – a celebrated, thirty-two-year veteran of OSF – is grippingly compelling as the gruff, growly William Joad, whose pale, bony face is a gnarled map of a life marked by hard work, too much drink, and now the ravages of cancer.  He has a rattlesnake manner of quickly striking before he thinks about how insulting a racially or socially biased comment may actually be; and he would rather grunt an abbreviated no-answer that answer the question actually asked.  At the same time, his eyes and slight smirk of a smile sometimes give away creeping inclinations and growing satisfaction that maybe this Martín is a real Joad at heart, especially when Martín says that it is “in the hands” how he knows how to farm and that “farming her own land” was a dream of his mom’s that he now wants to fulfill. 

Equally impressive to Mark Murphey’s depiction of the bent-over but stubbornly-spirited William is Tony Sancho’s of a cocky, smart-alecky Martín, a still-boy fast becoming a man.  Martín sports a quick tongue for hot-headed outbursts – especially when he comes across “shit broken and I gotta get it fixed.”  But it does not take too long for him to reveal a soft heart for family and a strong loyalty for friends.  His first reaction to William’s offer is not exactly the one the old man wants to hear (“You telling me I am going to own a honky farm in bum-fuck Oklahoma?”); but he begins to see something in this old, crotchety man that makes him eager to get the two of them into his trusted, open-back pick-up, Caesar, and start the trip eastward to his new maybe-home, Sallisaw, Oklahoma. 

The Chorus/Ensemble
Director Bill Rauch sends the two of them and all of us in the audience on a journey like none we have traveled before.  An ever-watching chorus of the various town and farm folk they meet along the way serve literally as mile markers along the famed Route 66, their both chanting and singing descriptors of scenery and skies, motels and cafes, events and people.  They step in to propel in stage-crossing twists and turns the jalopy Caesar while also becoming such items like a hilariously gurgling gas tank at a service station, an open mouth for an ejecting CD in the car, or headlights to guide Caesar on his way at night.  Behind all is a giant, old billboard one might see along any lonely highway in the U.S. (part of Christopher Acebo’s fun and inventive scenic design), with this one touting journey-enhancing projections of sign posts, passing fields, and starry nights, all designed by Kaitlyn Pietras. 

Catherine Castellanos & Mark Murphey
Along the way, William and Martín try to pry from the other answers to questions they each have about who the other really is.  Why did William and his mom not leave Oklahoma with the rest of the Joads, and where was his missing dad?  And by the way, who was Martín’s dad, and what is that wrapped package with a bow he carries everywhere he goes?  How did Martín get that Joad family Bible – one that is mysteriously missing a page and has verse numbers circled in strange places?  The answers to these and many other secrets both known and not-yet-known become part of the journey’s pivotal markers, the revelations of which are aided greatly by stories that start to be remembered by each and slowly to spill out.  These stories are often enacted in a sidebar on the stage, giving us a chance to meet William’s mom (Catherine Castellanos) as she tells young William (played with cute kid effects by Mark Murphey himself) about his Dad.  We also meet several times Martín’s once-bride-to-be and still love of his life, Amelia (Caro Zeller), whom he five months prior left standing alone at the altar.

Mark Murphey, Amy Lizardo & Tony Sancho
Other revelations and answers are uncovered by the help of people the two meet along the way – especially those that further fill up the front and back of good ol’ Caesar.  The first additional passenger is Mo, a migrant-working cousin of Martín, whom he swings by to find and to bring along as his future farm foreman ... uh, forewoman.  Amy Lizardo immediately leaves a strikingly likeable impression as the talkative, back-slapping, warm-hearted Mo, a lesbian as unashamedly out and butch as she is forever fearless, friendly, and frisky.  Somehow, her open spirit, no-b.s. approach, and even her firm commitment to turn his traditional farm into one fully organic quickly wins over William – long before he is yet sure how he truly feels about Martín.  The three become an oddball trio of musketeers whose loyalty and love begins to grow in ways that will prove life affirming and life fulfilling for each.

Cedric Lamar, Amy Lizardo, Mark Murphey & Tony Santos
Other people enter the scene to leave their mark and/or to join the troupe.  Catherine Castellanos is also a ‘bless-your-heart’ roadside cafe waitress who is ecstatic to meet one of the Route-66-famous Joads but who loses some of that awe when she becomes highly indignant and then eruptive in angry over William’s less-than-kind remarks about her former, Okie family.  Armando Durán is a hotel clerk, Abelardo, who is fighting to overcome anti-Okie prejudices his dead father (Fidel Gomez) still constantly pumps into his head.  Cedric Lamar is James, another long-time friend of Martín, and an African-American who brings a New Age respect for Mother Earth that he is prone to express with the rise-and-fall rhythm and passion of an evangelical preacher.  James finds a seat in Caesar as a future Oklahoman as also does a gun-toting, quick-fingered farmhand named Curtis (Fidel Gomez), whose Choctaw heritage becomes an unlikely ticket to join the traveling band.

Together, this assortment of vagabonds becomes the America of today and especially of tomorrow that William could never have imagined possible when he first meets his Mexican-American, sole-surviving relative, Martín Jodes.  Octavio Solis gives to the world a vision of the earth-honoring, people-respecting, and solidly-united future that makes his Mother Road the timely and worthy successor to John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath with its vivid portrayal of class-rooted divisions that still exist in our current politically polarized world.  Following this impressively directed, beautifully produced, and especially stellar-performed world premiere, may Mother Road now have long, theatrical legs, making its own journey across the stages of America and bringing its positive, powerful vision that must be more than just a pipe dream in a play’s script.

Rating: 5 E

Mother Road continues through October 26, 2019 in the Agnus Bowner Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Tickets are available at

Photos by Jenny Graham

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