Emilio Garcia-Sanchez (Martín Jodes). Photo: Kevin Berne.

Mother Road

Octavio Solis' sequel to "Grapes of Wrath" at Berkeley Rep.

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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Taking inspiration from John Steinbeck’s 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” playwright Octavio Solis imagines the last present-day descendants of the Joad clan in “Mother Road,” a larger-than-life road trip that takes on questions of race, class, identity, and family. 

While Steinbeck’s novel charted the path of the impoverished Joad family to California out of Dust Bowl-era Oklahoma, this sequel features the reverse story. A character named William Joad, who lives in Oklahoma, is old and ailing, and wants to leave his family farm to a relative. He finds Martín Jodes in California and the two together make a journey along Route 66 that is the opposite of the one taken by Tom Joad and his family in the “Grapes of Wrath” — back to Oklahoma from the West.

In an outstanding portrayal by talented local actor James Carpenter, William is a hard, lonely old man dying of liver cancer. He has made a success of the family farm in Sallisaw, Oklahoma, and wants to leave it to his kin — if he can find any.

The only remaining Joad, found on Craig’s List by William’s lawyer and surrogate son, is a young Mexican American farmworker, Martín Jodes, excellently played by Emilio Garcia-Sanchez. The last descendant of Tom Joad, somewhat of a hothead with a social conscience, Martín Jodes accepts William’s conditional offer that the two of them travel back to Oklahoma. If Martín proves himself, he will inherit the Joad farm.

During the long road trip, the two men hesitatingly share life stories and slowly gain some understanding. Along the way, the two become three, as Martín adds to their journey his outspoken, good-humored, and warm-hearted cousin Mo, well-acted by Lindsay Rico. Mo, an outspoken lesbian and organic farmer, has her own ecologically progressive ideas about how the farm should be run.

A bit too serendipitously, two other companions join the road trip — an African American friend of Martín’s and a Choctaw Native American, seemingly picked up to round out the array of Americans of all stripes. The group is crowded into a bright-green old truck creatively set on the revolving stage. At times, the truck cleverly turns into a diner and a hotel room under the direction of scenic designer Tanya Orellana.

Not all the people on Route 66 are friendly. There is violence stemming from prejudice, fear, and misunderstanding. In one scene, a hotel owner of Mexican heritage refuses to allow “Oakies” to stay in his establishment based on his dead mother’s ghostly prejudices.
A group of actors occasionally serves as a traditional Greek chorus as well as playing the minor roles in the production. However, although the chorus adds solemnity to the play, it can be a distraction. And the few soliloquies accompanying the action don’t seem to fit the central genre of the production.

I wish Octavio Solis had concentrated on the most essential ideas he wanted Mother Road to express. At its core, “Mother Road” is a study of family, especially fathers and sons. But it’s also a drama about Americans overcoming their bigotry against minorities and immigrants. And then again, “Mother Road” is about saving farmland from development and environmental hazards. Finally, the play is about going home.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s terrific when a play can generate many ideas. What sometimes goes awry in “Mother Road” is the clutter and confusion of all the themes, leaving one wondering whether all those themes needed to be addressed at the expense of more profound character development and a more unified thesis. Yet, as directed by David Mendizábal, “Mother Road” is an outstanding stage presentation full of human emotion, with a satisfying and heartfelt conclusion. 

“Mother Road” runs through July 21, 2024, at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Masks are encouraged but optional for performances from Wednesday through Saturday. Mask-wearing is required in the theatre on all Sundays (matinees and evenings) and Tuesdays. Post-show discussions and closed captioning are available at specific performances. Tickets, $29.50 – $139, plus a $9 order fee, with lower prices for those under 30 years), subject to change, can be purchased online at www.berkeleyrep.org or by phone at 510.647.2949.

This article was originally appeared on Berkeleyside.com
By Emily S. Mendel
© Emily S. Mendel 2024 All Rights Reserved
emilymendel@gmail.com

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