We’re long past the point where we expect musicals to confine themselves solely to feel-good subject matter. “Next to Normal,’’ anyone? Even by those standards, though, “The Color Purple’’ ventures into exceptionally grim territory.
Yet if “The Color Purple’’ explores the depths of human cruelty, the musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel and the film version also strives — sometimes strains — to take us to the heights and show us the resiliency of the human spirit. That’s an ambitious undertaking, especially when the tale spans nearly four decades, and the effort is sometimes palpable at SpeakEasy Stage Company. After an eventful and taut Act 1, the narrative line of Marsha Norman’s book grows diffuse in Act 2.
But overall this adds up to a stirring production. With Paul Daigneault bringing his customary vitality and dexterity to the challenge of directing a cast of 20, “The Color Purple’’ taps into the enduring power of Walker’s story about a woman in rural Georgia who undergoes systematically dehumanizing treatment, yet somehow emerges with her identity and her spirit intact.
That woman is Celie, portrayed at SpeakEasy by Roxbury native Lovely Hoffman, a rhythm-and-blues performer who is at her most expressive when she is singing the songs crafted by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray. Initially, Hoffman’s Celie fixes her gaze on the ground, as if she’d like to sink into the dirt — and indeed that’s exactly how she’s treated by the men in her life.
It’s 1909 at the beginning of “The Color Purple,’’ and 14-year-old Celie is about to give birth to her second child, having been impregnated by her own stepfather (David Jiles Jr.). Viewed as ugly by him and others, she spends her days doing chores and receiving verbal abuse, a harrowing existence brightened only by the loving, playful relationship she enjoys with her sister Nettie (the luminous Aubin Wise).
But Celie is torn away from Nettie when her stepfather forces her into marriage with a brutal man she knows only as Mister (his real name is Albert), who is looking less for a wife than for a servant, caretaker for his children, and general doormat. The versatile Maurice Emmanuel Parent, who excelled as the wily Ralph D. in SpeakEasy’s 2012 production of “The [Expletive] With the Hat,’’ is a convincingly heartless Mister, all baleful glare and rigid posture.
He has a weakness, though, and her name is Shug Avery. Crystin Gilmore brings the necessary force and sensuality to her portrayal of the free-spirited Shug, making it clear with, for example, her dynamic performance of the rousing “Push Da Button’’ why Albert can’t shake the spell the singer has cast on him. Gilmore also captures the tenderness of which Shug is capable, manifested in her relationship with Celie, which opens the door of possibility and escape for the latter.
Valerie Houston excels as Sofia, whose indomitability in the face of would-be male oppressors (emphatically underscored in “Hell No!,’’ her signature number) is grievously tested by an encounter with the vicious forces of white racism. Jared Dixon is solid as Harpo, Mister’s good-hearted son and Sofia’s husband.
No theater company in town executes musicals with more brio than SpeakEasy, and musical director Nicholas James Connell is a big reason why. Having worked on the company’s memorable productions of shows as varied as “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,’’ “Xanadu,’’ “The Drowsy Chaperone,’’ “In the Heights,’’ and the aforementioned “Next to Normal,’’ Connell delivers again in “The Color Purple.’’ Operating within the Wimberly Theatre rather than SpeakEasy’s usual, and smaller, Roberts Studio Theatre, he brings the gospel, blues, and jazz score to robust life, playing keyboard and conducting four other able musicians: Jason May on reeds, David Neves on trumpet, Zachary Hardy on drums, and Tom Young on guitar and harmonica.
Set designer Jenna McFarland Lord effectively suggests both the desolation and inextinguishable hope of Celie’s existence with one simple touch that evokes time, place, mood, and circumstance: a large, stark tree, its limbs reaching out.
Not everything about this production is as understated. Indeed, “The Color Purple’’ can feel laborious in its determination to deliver a message of self-empowerment and a dose of uplift, and you may find the personal transformation of one central character in particular very hard to swallow.
But you’re not likely to care by the time Hoffman delivers a deeply moving rendition of a song whose two-word title makes a statement that amounts to a kind of miracle, all things considered: “I’m Here.’’