Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Mother Road
Arena Stage
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Also see Susan's reviews of The King's Speech, Phantom of the Opera, and Miss You Like Hell

Mark Murphey and Tony Sancho
Photo by Margot Schulman
Playwright Octavio Solis must have realized that his idea of creating a contemporary rejoinder to John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" sounded like hubris. Happily, Mother Road, now in the Fichandler Stage at Washington's Arena Stage, beats the odds: it's a lyrical story that picks up the tale of the Joad family after 80 years with grace and elegance.

Director Bill Rauch originated this production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where he served as artistic director for 12 years. He is working with a nine-actor ensemble whose members demonstrate commitment in even the smallest roles.

The premise of Solis' play is that, when Tom Joad and his family left their Oklahoma farm during the 1930s Dust Bowl to search for a better life in California, other members of the family stayed behind and did the best they could. Now, William Joad (Mark Murphey) has come to California to find his relatives so he can bequeath them his farm, which he restored to prosperity. To his surprise, Will discovers that Tom fled the U.S. for Mexico; Tom's great-grandson Martín Jodes (Tony Sancho) is a migrant farmworker and U.S.-born son of a Mexican mother.

As the Joads in the 1930s had traveled to California via U.S. Route 66, which Steinbeck dubbed "the Mother Road" for its importance as a route of escape and hope, Solis takes Will and Martín back to Oklahoma along the remnants of the route, now largely replaced by interstate highways. Along the way, they meet people, make connections, and on occasion get into trouble because, like his forefather Tom, Martín fights back when he sees or experiences unfair treatment.

Murphey and Sancho anchor the production with bone-deep performances as two men, both with pride and frustration, beginning with distrust and ultimately acknowledging their similarities. (It's a cliché to say they're more alike than they are different, but that's the dynamic.) Other standouts in individual roles are Amy Lizardo as Martín's tough-talking cousin Mo who joins the trip, and Ted Deasy as Will's lawyer and surrogate son.

Part of the joy of Rauch's staging is its story-theater quality. The primary element of Christopher Acebo's set is Martín's beat-up pickup truck, depicted as a bench seat and a truck bed, both on wheels. Members of the ensemble provide narration, sometimes in rhyme, as they move the truck components, represent mile markers along the side of the "road" that bisects the in-the-round stage, and occasionally stand in for pieces of scenery. Caroline Mazuca has designed character-delineating costumes, Pablo Santiago's lighting design suggests sun-baked days and star-filled nights, Kaitlyn Pietras' projections provide context without becoming overly literal, and Paul James Prendergast captures the shifting scenes with his original music and sound design.

Mother Road runs through March 8, 2020, at Arena Stage, Fichandler Stage, Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th St. SW, Washington DC. For tickets and information, please call 202-488-3300 or visit

By Octavio Solis
Directed by Bill Rauch
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival production

Abelardo/Ranch Hand: David Anzuelo
Amelia/Chorus Leader: Natalie Camunas
Roger/State Trooper/Ranch Hand/William's Father: Ted Deasy
Curtis/Abelardo's Father: Derek Garza
James/Cook/Fight Captain: Cedric Lamar
Mo: Amy Lizardo
Ivy/Police Officer/William's Mother: Kate Mulligan
William Joad: Mark Murphey
Martín Jodes: Tony Sancho