Revisiting the civil rights struggles of the 1960s in a small Southern town is not my idea of wistful nostalgia. But ion theatre company’s new production of John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night offers a riveting stage drama set in Argo, Alabama, in 1965, a murder mystery whose solution nearly everyone knows before the curtain goes up.
In the Heat of the Night began as John Dudley Ball’s 1965 novel, but gained national recognition as Norman Jewison’s 1967 Academy Award-winning movie of the same name starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. The motion picture had a pair of sequels, and from 1988 to 1995, In the Heat of the Night was reincarnated as a TV show. Some cynical minds might wonder if this sturdy but overexposed story needed a theatrical adaptation, but Matt Pelfrey had no such hesitation and wrote John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night, a play that was first performed in New York in 2010.
Without resorting to melodrama, director Francis Gercke has forged his accomplished actors into a tightly wound cast that made the audience sweat along with them while Vimel Sephus playing the iconic Virgil Tibbs solved this small town murder and escaped the nocturnal assautls of the KKK. Most of the dialogue takes place in the Argo, Alabama, police station, where the scruffy, racist police chief Gillespie, played with just the right amount of dim swagger by Tom Stephenson, battles wits with Tibbs, the suave, black homicide detective from Pasadena, California. Sephus’ Tibbs exuded the calm professionalism that Ball required the character to have in order to elevate him above the far less proficient Southern white law officers. Since this is no longer 1967, at least Sephus did not have to shackle his character with the martyr-like supressed rage Poitier patented for his mtion picture Tibbs.
The cramped quarters of ion’s tiny BlkBx theater work to great dramatic advantage, making the audience feel they were just as
trapped in this steamy racist backwater as the black detective, who was merely changing trains in Argo—after a visit to his mother in some other rural hamlet—when Gillespie’s deputy Sam Wood arbitrarily decided to throw Tibbs in jail as the “obvious” murder suspect. Jake Rosko worked overtime to make Wood a sympathetic character, one who resists the casual racism of his peers but is still confined by the rustic mores of his surroundings. Brian Mackey worked even harder to make Pete, Wood’s righteously racist cohort at the station, as obtuse as he possibly could, and their counterpoint proved one of the delights of the production.
Jessica John provided a welcome breath of fresh air as Melanie Tatum, the well-mannered and elegantly spoken daughter of the murdered real estate agent, but I found Rachael VanWormer’s Noreen Purdy, the wayward teen temptress, too much a caricature. She was too old to be sucking on a lollipop at her police interrogation!
Other denizens of Argo necessary to the twisting of the plot included Fred Harlow’s appropriately defensive and irritable businessma Kaufman, another murder suspect; Eric Poppick’s preening Endicott, the town’s wealthy power broker, and Tim West’s Mayor Schubert, craven and duplicitous as any small-town politician could be. (We are fortunate that large city politicians would never stoop to such behavior!) Eddie Yaroch apparently had no trouble making Noreen Purdy’s father a particularly offensive cracker.
In terms of Gercke’s staging, I particularly liked the pantomime re-enactments of the murder scene as Chief Gillespie imagines each of his suspects committing. The audience knows Gillespie has the wrong man each time, but each pantomime gives the pathetic chief a measure of hope to his delusional sense of authority and makes Tibbs’ final solving of the crime even more satisfying.
Brian Redfern’s minimal set design worked well: some large, faded billboard ads on the walls, the front end of a car on the back wall with lights that came on when the plot needed a car in motion, and an assortment of utilitarian tables and benches lugged on and off the center of the stage. Everything suggested a bare, hardscrabble plainness about the town, as well as its threadbare ethical vesture.
Predictably, Mary Summerday’s costumes included lots of rumpled police uniforms and sweat-stained T-shirts, but Tibbs’ tailored, stylish suits appeared to have come straight from a Buffums department store. Melanie Tatum’s dark sheath dresses communicated similar cachet. Melanie Chen’s monochromatic sound design took an easy, but effective route: ample country banjo picking and a garnish of Patsy Cline.
Running just under two hours with no intermission, the play has the unrelenting pace of an action picture and is a commendable[php snippet=1] entertainment. I think, however, that Pelfrey’s feat of simply turning the novel into a play is underwhelming. What are rural or mid-sized towns in the South experiencing today in terms of race and class relations? In Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris dared to imagine what would happen if the house into which the struggling black family of A Raisin in the Sun moved were sold to an upwardly mobile white family 50 years later. That took some vision as well as craft. I can only credit Pelfry with craft.