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REVIEW: 'Mother Road' a powerful journey

"Mother Road" opens with the cast standing still with heads bowed. A billboard locates us in California's fields, and a highway center line splits the scene. The house lights are bright and harsh, because Artistic Director Bill Rauch wants us to see and understand what's about to unfold before us. There will be no shying away from pain, bigotry and injustice.

The world premiere of Octavio Solis' "Mother Road" opened last weekend at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It is a powerful journey from anger and ignorance to a reluctant awareness, and in the end, acceptance and love. It is the last play Bill Rauch will direct while at the helm of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

"¡Dale gas!" the ensemble cries. "Step on the gas!" They are the poor who walk instead of drive, and the cry has a desperate urgency, a poignant yearning for a place to begin a new life, find a place to call home. Where are they coming from? Where are they going? This is a fitting start to “Mother Road,” a road trip from California to Oklahoma, a journey from the past to a hopeful future.

“Mother Road” is Solis’ present-day sequel to John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.” In the “Grapes of Wrath,” Tom Joad leaves the dust bowl that was his family’s Oklahoma farm and joins California’s great agricultural workforce, where he is compelled to organize for justice. “The Grapes of Wrath” shocked the nation when it revealed terrible economic devastation and poverty during the Great Depression when Oklahoma families — Okies — who had nothing left but hope sought the promise of California.

In 2013, Solis traveled those same roads and experienced the journey through the lens of history and his own Mexican heritage. Solis found that today’s Okies are from Asia and from Central America, migrant workers housed in camps, ill-treated by a system that favors corporate appetite and established interests. He saw that many of yesterday’s wrongs are still not right and that memories of past troubles are still very real.

He conceived of “Mother Road” as a contemporary reversal of “The Grapes of Wrath,” a way to tell the stories of those who live in the margins today, and Solis recounts their tales of poverty, of family, of injuries old and new, and of a land poisoned by chemicals.

OSF veteran Mark Murphey has the role of William Joad, a bitter, sour, bigoted old man who’s too damn stubborn to die; somehow he’s managed to survive and gain some measure of wealth and property in Sallisaw, Oklahoma. Though rotten with cancer, Joad is determined to keep his land in the family and carries the property deed taunting his one remaining descendant, a Mexican-American named Martin Jodes, who is played by Tony Sancho. Sancho as Jodes is true to his Joad blood, quick to anger and to use violence when faced with injustice. Sancho is fierce and compassionate in the role, with an authenticity born of experience and maturity. Together, Jodes and Joad begin the drive from California to Oklahoma in Jodes’ old truck.

“Mile marker, mile marker,” chants the ensemble, and the billboard behind shows the everlasting tarmac and traffic of the miles they drive. Many of the scenes are in the old truck, because the monotony of the drive offers privacy and time for both thought and conversation. When they stop, there’s sure to be trouble, some conflict that threatens the healing.

Jeffrey King has several roles in “Mother Road,” representing much that is old authority, and plays these with the grace and confidence of 19 seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Tall and forthright, honorable and loyal but still conflicted, King as Roger is a lawyer who has the power to save or destroy — we won’t know his choices. King also plays a state trooper who is vicious and malignant, blinded by the power granted of race and class.

“¿A donde va?” asks the ensemble when Sancho as Jodes finds his chosen family along the way, people he trusts and understands who may help care for the Joad farm in Oklahoma. The chosen family is Mexican, African-American, Choctaw — no one blood but all of humanity. The journey is fraught with hurt and violence, and the past and present narratives of the characters are intertwined. Their accounts tell of desperate survival, of memory and healing from a spiritual journey that parallels the physical.

Amy Lizardo has the role of Mo, Jodes’ chosen cousin who can reinvent the family land as an organic farm. Lizardo shapes the role with a rough and tender presence, cautious and sensitive but raucous and unashamed. Solis writes Steinbeck’s character Jim Casey into “Mother Road” in the role of James, another of Jodes’ chosen family who is played by Cedric Lamar in his fifth OSF season. Lamar as James is the spiritual light of the production, holding the good and unspoiled earth as his god. Fidel Gomez is a Choctaw man who honors the dead and ultimately brings the Joad generations home to rest.

Rauch crafts Solis’ vision with care and dexterity, and “Mother Road” is a rich and powerful narrative that has a compelling unity. The talented performers give life to the words, and every moment stands out, but they do not interrupt the flow of the production, the wash of a story that will make you grieve and laugh and hope.

In the end, the old Joads have passed on, buried with their old ways in the Oklahoma soil, and Martin Jodes’ chosen family will shape the future. The ensemble voices Solis’ essential optimism, a promise in English this time so all will know it: “Your farm. Your future. Your turn. You’re home.”

“Mother Road” runs about two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission. It plays in the Angus Bowmer Theatre through Oct. 26. The show has some profanity, violence and adult themes consistent with Steinbeck’s writings so may not be appropriate for the youngest audiences. There will be a sign-interpreted production July 12. For more information and tickets, see OSFAshland.org or call the box office at 800-219-8161.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Fidel Gomez (chorus), Cedric Lamar (chorus), Tony Sancho (Martín Jodes), Caro Zeller (chorus), Armando Durán (chorus) play in a scene from "Mother Road" at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. OSF photo by Jenny Graham