In fact these billboards -- which really existed -- form an ironic backdrop to Chichester Festival Theatre’s touring production of The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s seminal novel set during the 1930s depression that all but ripped America apart.

Then, entire families upped sticks for a mammoth cross-country pilgrimage in search of work, still believing in this American dream, only to find themselves squaring up to a greedy and exploitative system.

Chichester Festival Theatre artistic director Jonathan Church’s sprawlingly beautiful production of Frank Galati’s stage version, originally made for Chicago’s Steppenwolf company, is a revelation. The Joad family’s journey to California’s allegedly promised land, without ever over-egging the parallels, looks startlingly of the moment with its tale of financial collapse, property slump, migrant labour and political awakening.

“The best political messages are often done historically,” Church says, in between tending to childcare duties with his young family. “And the best play to illustrate that is The Crucible.

“If Arthur Miller had set it, not at the Salem witch trials, but in the thick of McCarthyism itself, it wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful. I think it’s the same with The Grapes of Wrath, which says so much about the period it’s set in, but is much bigger than that.

“Neither is it an obvious choice for Chichester. I don’t think there’s ever been an American work of this scale on here before. But I did a production of Of Mice and Men a few years ago, and that made me look at Steinbeck again.

“When I read the Steppenwolf adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, I decided it was something I wanted to do. But it’s a big undertaking, and only when I moved to Chichester was there a stage big enough to accommodate it. Then this year, with everything that had occurred in the world with the recession, if ever there was a time to do it, it was now or never.”

Opening on the sort of grandstanding corn-yellow tableaux that once defined the unified ensembles that Bill Bryden’s Cottesloe company filled the National Theatre stage with in the 1970s, Church’s Grapes of Wrath is a mighty exercise.

Now making a pilgrimage north to Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre, the production has a TV-familiar cast, including an understated Christopher Timothy as Pa Joad, a loveable car that resembles an Okie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang transporting

The Beverly Hillbillies, as well as a hauntingly evocative gospel score by John Tams. But at the play’s heart is a quartet of characterisations that chart the shift of power between genders as each learns how to survive.

By reinstating Steinbeck’s original ending to the novel -- which the producers of John Ford’s 1940 film starring Henry Fonda left out, fearing the reaction of both the censors and the audience -- this Grapes of Wrath goes beyond polemic towards a more spiritual and philosophical consideration of “family”.

Significantly, the play begins with a scene involving two dominant male characters, and ends with a look into the future guided by what turns out to be a much stronger female force.

Prodigal son Tom Joad is nominally the play’s hero and his meeting and alliance with the older, wiser, if somewhat broken, Reverend Jim Casy provides the play with its restlessly rebellious male pulse.

By the end, however, Jim is dead and a radicalised Tom has gone off to change the world.

Ma Joad, on the other hand, has a more pragmatic kind of hope, and carries on through thick and thin in much the same way Brecht’s Mother Courage did before her -- and the wives politicised by the 1980s British miners strike would in years to come.

It is her daughter Rose of

Sharon, though, who makes the most life-changing transformation. When Rose of Sharon first enters, she’s a mollycoddled innocent, somewhat spoilt and naïve. By the end, with a stillborn baby not long buried, but her breasts still full of milk, she brings the starving man at her feet back to life by suckling him, leaving any macho revolutionary fervour redundant by comparison.

“It’s literally the milk of human kindness,” observes Sorcha Cusack, who plays Ma Joad. “While the men are out trying to change the world, humankind is kept alive through the female way, which is about life, death, birth, marriage and keeping the family together. That’s Ma Joad’s only goal, to keep her family warm, fed and clothed, and even as things are collapsing around her, she will not accept defeat.

“When Tom goes there’s a shift and she becomes tougher, with that courage rewarded by Rose of Sharon growing up. That’s what keeps Ma Joad’s spirit alive.”

For Rebecca Night, who plays Rose of Sharon, the experience is a long way from the corsets the actress has been kept in for much of her career, playing the title role in the television adaptation of Fanny Hill and onstage in The Importance of Being Earnest.

“When you read the end of the book,” Night observes of Steinbeck’s novel, “it’s so raw, and it’s the same in the play. The modern take on losing a baby is sometimes to get up, dust yourself down and get on with things. And at first, because of the way Rose of Sharon is, you think she would fall apart and go off and cry. But she finds this strength and becomes this completely different person. It’s almost as if she soaks up Ma Joad’s strength and resilience, and transfers that into what happens at the end of the play.”

Cusack, herself from a considerable dynasty, again points to the bloody minded matriarchal power involved in Ma Joad’s vain attempts at keeping her family together. “Mothers can be tougher on their daughters than their sons,” she says, “but in the end, who stays? All Ma Joad’s sons have jumped ship, but Rose of Sharon is still there and points the way to the future.”



The Grapes of Wrath, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, October 13-17.