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A CurtainUp Review
In the Heat of the Night
By Elyse Sommer
John Ball made an auspicious publishing debut with In The Heat of the Night (Harper & Row, 1965). Ball arranged for a more inauspicious entry into his plot for its chief crime solver, a Philadelphia policeman named Virgil Tibbs. (The movie located him in Pasadena) As the book begins Tibbs has returned to the deep South to visit his mother. He's standing at a railroad station in a small town minding his own business. Unfortunately for him, a local man has just been murdered. A black man who's a stranger with a wallet full of cash is an easy and immediate prime suspect.
To the amazement of the bigoted police accustomed to addressing any black men as "Boy" or "Nigger", Tibbs turned out to be a respected homicide investigator, with sleuthing methads à la Sherlock Holmes. No sooner was he cleared as a suspect, than his boss orderered him to hang around and help Chief Gillespie track down the real killer. With rumblings of the Civil Rights movement exacerbating the bigotry in strongholds of white supremacy, this wasn't an easy assignment and it was the relationship between two men who, under their different colored skins, were not that dissimilar (except that Tibbs was college educated and smarter), that gave Ball's book its uniqueness.
In the Heat of the Night is still in print and Virgil Tibbs appeared in a number of other John Ball books, but he achieved widest name recognition via the multiple Oscar award winning 1968 film adaptation starring Sidney Poitier as Tibbs and Rod Steiger as Gillespie. The movie didn't stick slavishly to the novel (for starters relocating Tibbs in Philadelphia instead of Pasadena and having the crime take place in Mississippi). What remained unchanged, however, was the thematic focus on two strong-willed, loners thrown together professionally in an atmosphere of hatred but whose two-way antagonism gradually turns to provisional mutual respect.
Even for those who've never seen the Poitier-Steiger film (it's available as a DVD) the name Virgil Tibbs rings a bell because of that iconic "Just Call me MisterTibbs." But, though the movie spawned two Mr. Tibbs-titled sequels and, years later, a long-running television series (created by Ball), there's never been a stage adaptation of Ball's story. Until now.
The play Joe Tantalo commissioned Matt Pelfrey to adapt from the original book for his Godlight Theatre Company proves that the story holds up. In the light of recent distressing expressions of bigotry after the health care reform vote tearing away at the seemingly peaceful surface of our culturally diverse society, it is actually quite relevant. Most of all it's eminently stageworthy — especially as mounted by Tantalo with a cast of ten actors playing almost twice as many characters.
Since In the Heat of the Night's plot revolved around a murder mystery it seems to demand lots of scenery and realism. But rather than try to emulate the scope of telling a story like this on screen, Tantalo and his gifted set and lighting designer, Maruti Evans, have taken an approach that would work only on stage, and ideally so in a very intimate setting. The result is a tense and exciting story that follows the book's basic plot but offers viewers a distinctly new and different In the Heat of the Night.
The play combines realism with some highly stylized scenes and does it all with just two props: a sheer curtain to get things off to a powerfully dramatic start, and a hangman's noose overarching the otherwise bare stage as a potent visual symbol. If you've ever been to the tiny Theater C, you'll know that this is about as intimate a theatrical experience as you're likely to find anywhere in Manhattan. Viewers are seated all around the theatrical equivalent of a postage stamp (not a bad seat in the house) and the four short aisles are occupied by the actors when not on stage.
Sean Phillips and Gregory Konow are of course the actors who have the toughest challenge, having to face down memories of Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. Phillips is like Poitier tall and handsome so he initially seems to be channeling the movie star. However, he has strong enough acting chops to make the role his own. Konow also brings his own strengths to the role of the hick Sheriff. Four of the cast members tackle multiple roles with ease and fluidity. Ryan O'Callaghan is especially good as Purdy, the redneck brother of the sexy teenager (Scarlett Thiele) who plays a pivotal role in helping Tibbs to nail the killer. Nick Paglino and Sam Whitten ably handle the play's important good and the bad cops, Sam Wood and Pete.
The surreal stylized interludes are beautifully choreographed by Hachi Yu and surprisingly aren't the least bit jarring with the tough talk infused realistic elements. That master of on stage violence, Rick Sordelet, sees to it that the fight scenes work without anyone falling off that miniscule stage. The sound effects are fine, though it would have been apt to include some riffs from Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit", a metaphoric title for black men hanging from a tree
As for that always present hangman's noose, we can take heart that white and black restrooms and water fountains, and the Klu Klux Klan and lynchings are in our distant past, it also is also a symbol with which director Tantalo reminds us that race continues hangs like a heavy cloud over the American landscape and his ending leaves little doubt that we are still a few handshakes away from being truly color blind.
At $25 a ticket, this familiar yet fresh take on a novel best known for its film and TV spinoffs is one of the best theater buys in town. The ability to stage it economically and in a modest stage should make it an appealing project for regional theater's looking for affordable and artistically appealing new works.