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You can look at a road trip from two perspectives: It’s either a journey toward a destination, or a journey away from an origin point. In Mother Road, a theatrical follow-up to John Steinbeck’s classic migration story The Grapes of Wrath, a band of Americans in search of a shared destination examine their own origin points.
Playwright Octavio Solis starts his story when William Joad (Mark Murphey) meets up with the last living descendent of Tom Joad in California. William plans to give this Joad the deed to his Oklahoma farm, for reasons not yet clear, but is surprised and initially dismayed to find that his would-be successor is Mexican American. (Throughout the play, the elder Joad earns the dubious distinction of being slightly less racist than other characters our voyagers encounter along their journey.) Still, he wants to verify their shared lineage and make sure that Martín Jodes (Tony Sancho) is up to the task of taking over his beloved farm.
Because Martín Jodes, who harbors his own secrets, refuses to fly, the two have to drive back to Oklahoma together. Mother Road quickly falls into the rhythm of a road trip story, with the two men arguing over what music to listen to, and the long, lonely miles prompting them to open up and reveal intimate truths.
The play is at its best when it examines these truths. Sancho highlights Martín’s righteous and Sisyphean bravery as he struggles against systemic racism and violence. Murphey captures William’s deep, internalized hurt. As they travel, the pair picks up more travelers, including Martín’s cousin Mo (a hilarious and winning Amy Lizardo). She, like William, Martín, and their fellow travelers, dreams of freedom, prosperity, and belonging—your typical American Dream stuff.
Mother Road is, at its core, optimistic. It believes that people, despite their differences, can travel through life together. It’s a beautiful sentiment, with powerful staging. The characters travel around in a beat up truck, and the intimacy of the in-the-round staging pulls the audience into the play’s more action-packed scenes.
This isn’t to say the play always works. While Mo injects welcome comedy and energy into the long journey, the show’s humor sometimes cuts and deflates dramatic and serious moments. Similarly, the play’s greek chorus, which intensifies the show with poetic chanting, at times interrupts otherwise strong scenes. Mother Road also takes on a lot, which means that not every compelling character and story gets as much time as you might hope. The genuine mutual affection, or at least understanding, William and Martín seem to develop doesn’t quite feel earned.
Still, Mother Road is a reminder that while we’re all in this together, we’re all going through different things. If we afforded each other the thoughtfulness this play gives its characters we’d all be better off. Mother Road is a road trip. It’s long and winding, but worthwhile in the end.
To March 8 at 1101 6th St. SW. $41–$105. (202) 554-9066. arenastage.org.
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