The heck did I just watch.
Mother Road, an unauthorized, unexpected, and unsatisfying “sequel” to The Grapes of Wrath going on now until March 8 at Arena Stage, has singing, pantomime, projection screens, heavy use of flashbacks, and some light dream sequencing as it attempts to reverse and retrace the Joad family’s famous migration along the “mother road,” this time back from California to Oklahoma. None of it works.
As written by Octavio Solis and directed by Bill Rauch, Mother Road (and yeah, I hate the title more every time I type it) concerns Will Joad, the last surviving member of John Steinbeck’s hardscrabbling clan, or so he thought until he meets Martín Jodes, a Mexican-American agricultural worker who manages to make a surprising amount of problems out of inheriting a 2,000-acre farm.
It’s not a horrible idea to subvert Steinbeck with some 21st century racial updates, but it is an utter failure of execution that sends Bill and Martín on what can only be described as a mismatched buddy comedy Route 66 road movie with surreal spiritual overtones that would feel at home in a Carlos Castaneda book. Along the way, they pick up a cousin of Martín’s he wants to be his foreman one day and then later an old friend of his he runs into, beyond improbably, in the middle of a snowstorm. These additions are meant to turn the odd couple into a diverse cross section of Americana (with the old white man preparing to hand over the reins), but none of it feels real enough to deserve its symbolism.
Everyone they meet has tremendous — not entirely believable — social baggage. Martín gets assaulted at a gas station by people talking about ICE and illegals. Bill rips into a waitress whose family lionized the Joads, but never made it so far themselves. By the time our group gets turned away at a hotel by someone specifically prejudiced against “Okies,” audiences will be praying for it to be over.
When you have the racial maturity of an extra-woke after-school special (“Don’t you see?! The system will never be fair for Mexicans!”), you allow yourself some pretty clumsy conclusions (“Don’t you see?! Systematic oppression makes us ALL Mexicans!”). I wish I was exaggerating.
This is the kind of play where someone can assault a police officer and be a wanted fugitive featured on the news… only for that development to be completely ignored for the rest of the show because, well, dealing with it would be inconvenient. At one point, a new character shoots one of our heroes in the chest with a shotgun — only to be welcomed into the merry band of misfits moments later.
Which, you know, could actually be made to work, if this were an “lol, nothing matters” kinda story. But it’s not. It thinks it has things to say
“I’ll be everywhere — wherever you look,” Tom Joad famously said. “Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beating up a guy, I’ll be there.” Mother Road tries to be there, too, but you wish it hadn’t shown up.
The set is both too much and too little: taking up time and energy to shift its cluttered pieces around while always leaving the stage feeling empty. The costumes consciously blend Depression-era with present day, which makes everyone look like they are physically nowhere. The performances are fine, but you won’t believe a single word anyone says.
This time, get your kicks well off of Route 66.