John Ball's In the Heat of the Night
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 24, 2010
Somehow, I have never read John Ball's novel In the Heat of the Night, nor seen either the 1967 film adaptation that starred Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger or the long-running TV series based on both that ran for eight seasons in the '80s/'90s. So I came to Godlight Theatre Company's world premiere production of Matt Pelfrey's dramatization of this material with no preconceived notions save a general idea of the storyline and a vivid recollection of the movie clip where Poitier tells Steiger "They call me Mister Tibbs!"
Well, I am so glad to have seen it. The play is taut and startlingly resonant, even as it deals with events taking place nearly 50 years ago. Pelfrey's work is economical and uncompromising. The direction, by indie theater wizard Joe Tantalo, is spare and jolting and brilliant. The stark production design by Maruti Evans is ingenious—the folks who created the needlessly busy sets for the current Broadway revival of The Miracle Worker could learn much from the lean, clean approach employed here. This rendition of In the Heat of the Night is suspenseful, thrilling, and stunningly theatrical.
It begins as soon as you enter the theatre and take your seat, on one of four sides of a small square playing space that's encased by sheer white curtains. Behind those curtains is a girl of 16 or 18 or thereabouts, lazily but deliberately enacting a slow striptease that might simply be a response to the cloying summer heat or might be for someone's benefit. Who's watching Noreen Purdy? That will turn out to be a very important question in the mystery that is about to unfold.
The play proper begins with local police sheriff Gillespie receiving a call at his home. (I love that Pelfrey has him watching The Match Game on TV, and that the special guest star—not-so-subtle foreshadowing here—is Jayne Mansfield.) The call comes from a policeman on duty in this small town of Argo, Alabama, a fellow named Pete; he's reporting the murder of a white land developer. Gillespie reluctantly goes to the station, where Pete and fellow cop Sam bring in their suspect, a black man they found loitering, claiming to be waiting for a train. In the American South in 1962, not much more evidence was needed to implicate a fellow in circumstances like this.
But this black man turns out to be Virgil Tibbs, a Pasadena cop visiting the area (his mother lives nearby). Not only is Gillespie forced to let Tibbs go: soon he is being ordered by the mayor to collaborate with him in solving the murder case. Gillespie's racist predisposition and Tibbs's dignity both come in for serious readjustments as a result.
Heat is a murder mystery, principally, so I don't want to give too much away about the plot. The whodunit aspect of the piece is subsidiary, though, to the social issues that novelist Ball and playwright Pelfrey are examining here: not just the relationship between the white cop and the black detective, but also the broader context of an African American defying a century of prejudice and Jim Crow to take charge of a matter that would otherwise have been the exclusive province of whites. The most affecting scenes here are the ones where Tibbs comes up against stuff he's been able to forget about in California and that we've been able to forget about with the passage of time: the fact that the local diner won't serve him food or the nearest hotel where he can stay is six miles out of town. Or this:
TIBBS: Excuse me, could you tell me where I can wash?
PETE: Colored washroom's down the hall to your right.
Somehow, although the institutionalized racism depicted here is thankfully long gone, the racist attitudes of many of the characters feel sickeningly familiar in 2010.
Tantalo and his cast keep the drama immediate and the tension high throughout. Tantalo's staging is masterful: nary a prop is used, yet the locales of each of the many scenes are clear and distinct, thanks in large part to Evans's evocative lighting and Elizabeth Rhodes's equally adept sound design. The cast of ten is exemplary, with most taking on several characters. In the central roles are Sean Phillips as Virgil Tibbs and Gregory Kunow as Chief Gillespie, both of whom are able to make these familiar characters very much their own. Ryan O'Callaghan as Noreen Purdy's brother, who turns out to be key to the resolution of the case, is especially memorable, as is Nick Paglino as Sam, the Alabama cop who thinks that Mr. Tibbs may actually have something to teach him.
If you know In the Heat of the Night from one of its earlier versions, I think you'll still find plenty here to stimulate and challenge your thinking about the story and about how theatre can tell stories in general. And if, like me, you're new to this powerful tale, here's a great opportunity to take it in and to enjoy the signal talents of Godlight Theatre, here doing work that ranks with their very finest.