(March 3-October 26)
Rating (out of 5): ★★★★½
The idea of writing a theatrical sequel to John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” would seem shocking were it not that the playwright is Octavio Solis, one of the country’s most-celebrated living writers of the Mexican-American experience. There is definitely something Steinbeckian about Solis’ award-winning work. And the playwright’s understanding of Steinbeck’s storytelling style — and the bruised, sometimes broken humanity of Steinbeck’s characters — is on full display in “Mother Road,” a new play written with the support of the National Steinbeck Center. The title is taken from Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” in which the author writes, “Highway 66 is the main migrant road … 66 is the path of a people in flight … 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.”
“The Grapes of Wrath,” of course, traces the long journey of young Tom Joad and his family as they flee the dust storms and famines of Oklahoma in the 1930s, on their way to California in search of jobs and opportunity. “Mother Road,” directed by Rauch (making it the final world premiere of his OSF tenure), is set in the present and begins in Southern California, where Steinbeck’s novel ended. The aging William Joad (a flat-out brilliant Mark Murphey) is descended from the few Joads who stayed behind in Oklahoma, and he’s managed to thrive, eventually buying and expanding a farm and ranch in Salisaw, the Joad family’s original home. He’s come to California to meet a Martin (an excellent Tony Sancho), a young man William believes is the only other living Joad, the grandson of Tom Joad, who (we soon learn) fled to Mexico and raised a family. Martin, using the surname Jodes, is a Mexican-American laborer, and neither he nor William is thrilled to learn they are kin.
Hoping to leave his ranch to a family member, William reluctantly invites Martin to come back to Oklahoma to see the ranch, and perhaps offer more concrete proof of his blood kinship to the Joads. For a variety of reasons, the two end up traveling Route 66 in Martin’s truck, reversing the journey the Joads took in “The Grapes of Wrath.” Along the way, new passengers join the expedition, each a clever alteration of some motley member of the crew from Steinbeck’s original tale. The journey, appropriately enough, is full of setbacks, breakdowns, fistfights, run-ins with the law, encounters with unfriendly locals (including a Mexican-American hotel clerk, Armando Duran, who refuses to serve Oklahomans), and – because this is an Octavio Solis play – a wandering chorus of road-traveling ghostswho sing, recite poetry, offer snippets of narration, and in one wrenching display of magical realism, actually engage in conversation (with the aforementioned hotel clerk), a surreal moment that is treated as perfectly normal by the other characters present.
On occasion, the “messages” in the story’smore poetic ideas become so pronounced they begin to drown out the poetry itself. There will no doubt be some who find Solis’ tone occasionally “preachy,” and that’s not entirely inaccurate. If “Mother Road” weren’t based on a classic by Steinbeck – who turned preachiness into high art with his soaring, brutal, sweet and stinging prose — I’d say that it’s a problem. But if only as an homage to the Nobel-winning author, I’d argue that even if occasionally a bit jarring, the play’s “message moments” generally add more than they detract.
It’s not necessary to have read “The Grapes of Wrath” (recently or otherwise) to appreciate the richness of Solis’ astonishing accomplishment with “Mother Road,” but it certainly adds to the experience to “get” when he’s playfully amending or twisting or tipping his hat to Steinbeck’s original story. Having a working familiarity, for example, with Tom Joad’s legendary “I’ll be there” speech is useful – even if you only know it from Bruce Springsteen’s “Ghost of Tom Joad” song — when you suddenly realize, late in the play, how Solis has just transformed that speech into something wholly of-the-moment, an expansively compassionate new version that is emotionally and spiritually and intellectually perfect.
For me, admittedly a fan of Steinbeck’s lyricism and humanity, the moment was nothing short of thrilling. (In fact, as I left the theater on the final afternoon of my three-day visit to Ashland, I found myself hoping that Solis adapts “Mother Road” into an actual novel, allowing himself to capture even more of that gorgeously Steinbeckian language).
Rauch’s direction is appropriately fluid and dreamlike, with occasional moments of stark groundedness, emerging from the steady, flowing drive of his pacing like little restorative breaks at a roadside truck stop in the middle of a highway filled with mirages. The cast is sensational, most of the actors playing an assortment of characters, the entire ensemble conjuring real, multidimensional people out of Solis’ admittedly stylized language. The scenic design by Christopher Acebo is simple and uncomplicated, but sneakily so, with a diagonal highway arcing across the stage under a large billboard on which are projected an array of gorgeous landscapes and other scene-setting images.
Taken together, the words, images and performances of OSF’s “Mother Road,” though occasionally a bit bumpy and (ever-so-slightly) off-course, make for an experience that builds in charm and power right up to its gorgeous, quintessentially Steinbeckian ending. As the first of Rauch’s final two shows at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, it’s a stunning beginning to what looks to be a class-act of an ending.
(‘Mother Road’ runs through October 26 in the Angus Bowmer Theater at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in Ashland. For information on show dates and times, and the full OSF Schedule, visit OSFAshland.org).